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|We are all silly animals coveting our beastly desires.
-- Jerome Kennedy
(Photo: Alistair Muir)
Noel Coward wrote over a hundred plays, some of which have never been produced commercially. Semi-Monde was written in 1926 when it appeared under the title Ritz Bar. The play took place in the bar of a large and luxurious Paris hotel where couples, gay, lesbian and heterosexual come and go, often leaving with someone else's partner. The play was not submitted to the Lord Chamberlain, the English censor at that time. Theatre censorship ended in England in 1968. Semi-Monde was superseded by the film Grand Hotel which has much the same theme, if not such risqué content. Semi-Monde has, by present day standards, an enormous cast of almost 30, but the content no longer fails to shock. The play was put on in 1977 at Glasgow Citizens' Theatre by its current director, Philip Prowse and was seen by Thelma Holt, the theatrical impresario who now brings it to London after almost a quarter of a century.
Although the characters are followed over a space of two years from the hedonistic twenties into the "storms clouds gathering" Europe of the 1930s, each couple is only allowed a few lines before it is replaced by the next. We can be in no doubt that Coward despised these indolent rich, partner swapping, champagne swigging, socialites. A young married couple meet a father and daughter, each to be unfaithful with. Young, pretty, gold digging women find rich, ugly, old men to keep them in jewellery and furs. A pair of lush gay men salivate amusingly over a young, attractive man. The final scene puts some of the cast into military uniform but this 1930s setting negates Coward's point that it was the 1920s when, "we tried to hide our happiness by appearing to be as blasé, world weary and 'jagged with sophistication' as we possibly could."
The play left me feeling as empty as the lives of these superficial creatures. There are flashes of Coward's famous wit but not enough of these to avoid disappointment. Actors walking on and off consume an amazing amount of play time. The director has all of them entering and exiting on the diagonals which irritates. The women are like mannequins at a fashion show, modelling scanty black floating cocktail dresses, which show their stocking tops and suspenders, and with copious amounts of diamanté. The language at times reminded me of those dubbed films or a bad translation from another language which does not quite flow. The first interval is after only 35minutes onstage and there appears no reason for it, no change of scene or costume. The set is very pretty, a lit Eiffel Tower and a wonderful golden dome to the hotel lobby.
Nichola McAuliffe sings a couple of Coward songs but her rendering of "Mad About the Boy" disappoints as she doesn't have a jazzy, bluesy voice to give the song its true pathos. Nichola McAuliffe in her acting part as Dorothy Price does, however, convey the desperation of a married woman who is in love with a Russian emigré after her money. The Russian was to have been played by Hollywood veteran, Farley Granger but he has been permanently replaced by Stefan Bednarczyk. Frances Tomelty's Lesbian opera singer has plenty of butch bitchiness and jealous scenes. Benedick Bates (son of Alan Bates) is a beautiful young thing somewhat confused about his sexuality. John Carlisle gives a confident performance as Jerome Kennedy, lover to Tanis Marshall (Sophie Ward) the newly wed of the first scene and young enough to be his daughter.
It is a shame, but I fear that Semi-Monde will only appeal to the ardent Coward devotees who were eagerly anticipating this production and even then, not to all of those. It surely can only be a matter of time before the cast, some of whom are working for half wages, outnumber the audience.
Editor's Note: Another and newly interpreted Coward revival is currently on Broadway where it has met with reviews varying from rants to raves. It stars British actress Jennifer Ehle -- Design For Living.
Written by Noel Coward
Directed and designed by Philip Prowse
With: Dom Wilson, Lucy Russell, Sophie Ward, Nichola McAuliffe, Georgina Hale, David Foxxe, Camila Power, Ellen Sheean, Ian Price, Benedick Bates, Derwent Watson, Simon Dutton, Frances Tomelty, Freya Dominic, Imogen Claire, John Carlisle, Beth Cordingly, Stefan Bednarczyk, Andrea Hart, Brendan Hooper, Tristam Wymark, Carsten Hayes, Paul Albertson, Patti Clare, Peter Hampson, Niall Faber, Andrew Joseph, Stephen Stott.
Lighting Design: Gerry Jenkinson
Running time: One hour 55 minutes with two intervals
Box Office: 020 7494 5045
Booking to 28th April 2001
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 23rd March 2001 performance at the Lyric Theatre Shaftesbury Avenue London W1
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