Chichester Festival Theatre, W. Sussex
  Opened 16 April, 2009

Noël Coward an early master of intertextual metatheatricality... who'd have thought it? When a frustrated house-guest unleashes her second-act tirade against the Bliss family, the unconventional (to say the least) hosts of an eventful (a similar understatement) country-house weekend, she declares that she has been building up to it all evening "but I kept being mown down by theatrical effects", meaning the Blisses' conspiracy of histrionicism. Of course, it reminds us that the whole thing is merely a play, too; but since we take delight in the characters' theatricality, why shouldn't they do so themselves? Deconstructivists might call it jouissance, but in this case I prefer the English term: having a bit of a lark.
No doubt arguments can be made that there is more depth to the play, that the Blisses ridicule superficialities as part of a desire to find something more profound, but I don't buy that. This is early Coward (1925) at his lightest and, for want of a more dignified term, zaniest. When father, mother, son and daughter all invite prospective lovers to the bohemian family’s country seat on the same weekend, it is not a cause for shock or moral admonition, but rather dashed inconvenient that none of them has the field clear to themselves. It is pretty much a given that, in the course of an evening, all will change partners; what completely bewilders the guests – a couple of ingenues, a diplomat and a femme fatale meeting her match – is that once renowned actress Judith Bliss decides to improvise on the theme of some of her past melodramatic glories, the rest of the family join in with gusto, leaving the poor saps to believe that feelings really are running as absurdly high as the rhetoric.
Nikolai Foster's production is firmly in the cash-cow category of Chichester productions, but none the less agreeable. Diana Rigg and Simon Williams enjoy themselves as the Bliss parents; Natalie Walter is as delightful a wide-eyed innocent as ever; her male counterpart Edward Bennett is full of bounce, as if still buoyed by his reception as David Tennant's replacement Hamlet last year; and Guy Henry excels at trying to be that little bit more suave than his lanky frame will allow. When summer seems to have come early to Chichester, profundity be damned.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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