Hampstead Theatre, London NW3
Opened 27 January, 2009

“There’s nothing that can explode!” is a praeternaturally apposite line at which for a venue’s safety alarms to go off, but that’s what happened on the first press night in Hampstead Theatre’s 50th-anniversary season. Actors Jasper Britton and Claire Price struggled heroically against the beeps and flashing lights whilst the venue staff repeatedly re-set the circuit, but the apparatus proved so persistent that proceedings had to be halted for several minutes. (Extraordinary how potent cheap sirens are.) Perhaps pointedly, play was resumed at the line, “Give me [a cigarette]… I am in such a rage!”
Nor was that the only intrusion of the contemporary world into the milieu of Elyot and Amanda in Noël Coward’s 1930 play. (The Hampstead is commemorating what, amazingly, amounted to its rediscovery of the then-neglected work for a 1962 revival.) Director Lucy Bailey and her cast eschew all period poise and crispness, either in physical manner or in diction. (Katrina Lindsay’s design for Amanda’s Parisian flat in Act Two also looks more like a 1960s loft apartment with Thirties furnishings.) Bailey’s career highlights include adaptations of period movies Baby Doll and The Postman Always Rings Twice, so I presume her strategy here is a deliberate choice. As Elyot and Amanda flee their respective second honeymoons to live in sin together before falling back into their old wrangling, Bailey perhaps intends to illustrate that the Cowardian mix of violence and ridiculousness in such a “can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em” relationship is as salient today as nearly 80 years ago.
This has some payoffs. Jasper Britton can find the absurdity in himself and events around him in any historical or emotional key, so his Elyot is as vital as a flame; Price, who at first seems a little ingenuous as Amanda, turns this to her advantage in the first scene of unexpected reunion, her brittle pleasantries carrying an edge of hysteria which suggests that Amanda may be half-mad and trying not to lose the rest. Alas, these possibilities do not mature or develop, and in the end we lose more by being deprived of the contrast between impeccable conventions of dress and speech and outré personal conduct. Instead of connecting us with the characters, the modern playing style gravely diminishes their impact.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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