NOËL COWARD TONIGHT
Jermyn Street Theatre, London SW1
Opened 11 May, 2001

Sheridan Morley has consciously assembled a double-bill of contrasts by his godfather to be staged under the title Noël Coward Tonight at the intimate Jermyn Street Theatre. In Shadows Of The Evening, a wealthy publisher, his wife and mistress are reunited by the news that he is dying; in Red Peppers, a ropey music-hall double-act bicker with each other, their musical director and the theatre manager between numbers.

The first piece, written in 1966, is even more deliberately Coward's theatrical last word than the full-length play which it originally companioned, Song At Twilight. As George, Jeremy Clyde rages not so much against the dying of the light as against sentimental attitudes towards it; he focuses not on how to die, but how to live until that point. It is an unusually naked piece of articulation on Coward's part, aggressively secular and driven by an apparent need to be heard on the subject. The Coward buff sitting beside me remarked during the interval that he had never encountered a piece in which the master so obviously "preached" to the audience. Morley directs his experienced cast Jane How as the wife, Annabel Leventon as the mistress in the formal vein of the patrician expatriate classes (living, in this case, in Lausanne); even when the veneer of sociability breaks down, the most heartfelt exchanges are still delivered with an air of polish. This combines with the tone of the piece to make it perhaps more uncomfortable viewing than is intended.

The slighter Red Peppers, dating from three decades earlier (originally played in the Tonight At 8.30 group of pieces, with Coward and Gertrude Lawrence as the double-act which gives the sketch its title), is quite necessary to sugar the pill. Gillian Lynne's staging of the musical numbers, "Has Anybody Seen Our Ship?" and "Man About Town", admirably gets things just tatty enough; Leventon and Peter Land are a pair of curmudgeonly old troupers whose ferocity against each other is exceeded only when they join together to have at anyone who disses either one of them. The size of the venue means that references to the conductor and orchestra are a little out of place when there is just Jeremy Nicholas as solo pianist (hitting bum notes with Les Dawson-like skill), but Ben Dickens' design is not only versatile but so detailed that the supposedly old posters on the back wall refer to the fictitious acts mentioned in the dialogue.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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