In 1921, the 22-year-old Noël Coward sent a copy of his second comedy The Young Idea to Bernard Shaw, admitting that he had ripped off the plot of the master's You Never Can Tell. Shaw wrote back, "Never read or see anything of mine again as long as you live," but also suggested an additional scene. Indeed, the mood of the central exchange in Act Two, Scene Two is palpably Shavian, as George Brent and his second wife Cicely acknowledge candidly but without rancour that they have never been particularly in love and that the manner either of their staying together or their separation will be dictated by nothing as callow as emotional pretence.
The rest of the play, though, requires a moderately delicate balance from the main juvenile players. As Sholto and Gerda set about separating George from Cicely and luring him back from Leicestershire huntin' circles to their mother, his first wife, on the Italian Riviera, the actors in the youngsters' roles must walk a line: too broad in the playing of the schemes they act out, and their strategems would never seem remotely plausible to those they gull; too dedicated to their goal, and the larkish sparkle to all their playful exertions will vanish. Simon Quarterman and Chloe Newsome, under the guidance of the Chester Gateway's artistic director Deborah Shaw, get it right; their air of constantly suppressed giggling is always evident to the audience, but never seems as if it ought to be just as obvious to George's house guests.
They are set a fine example by Benjamin Whitrow as George, who brings to the role the same calm sardonicism with which he imbued Mr Bennet in the BBC's Pride And Prejudice; even in the final act, on the verge of reunion when the children talk ludicrous rings round him to prevent an unforeseen eleventh-hour slip-up in the shape of a rival suitor, Whitrow never quite exerts himself so vulgarly as to fly into a full-scale flap. This trio carry the play and production with assurance, since Jane How as first wife Jennifer, a a perfect complement to George in her insight and plaisanterie, enters the proceedings too late to share much of the burden; Celia Montague's Cicely is, in mood and vocal inflexions, a clone of 1970s-period Joanna Lumley, and Graham Seed, doubling as one of the hunt set and Jennifer's American suitor, has little chance to establish either character. All in all, The Young Idea proves one of the more interesting discoveries to have had the dust blown off it as part of Coward's centenary celebrations.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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