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A CurtainUp London London Review
This Was a Man

"Reticence as a national quality seems to be on the wane." — Edward
This Was a Man
Nicholas Audsley as Bobby, Georgina Rylance as Zoe and Jamie De Courcey as Edward (Photo:
Noel Coward's 1926 play This Was a Man was a victim of censorship. While it was seen in America, Berlin and Paris, it has not been professionally produced in the UK until now, eighty-eight years after it was written. Why? Because a member of the Royal Household, the Lord Chamberlain, from 1737 to 1968 was the arbiter of public taste. This archaic and ridiculous situation resulted in many dramas of great literary merit being either censored or unseen altogether or seen only in a private club. This Was a Man fell foul of the Lord Chamberlain because it dealt with a contentious issue, adultery!

The title This Was a Man comes from a Shakespeare's Julius Caesar when Antony talks about Brutus, comparing him favourably with the other more self advancing conspirators. The man of the title is self-effacing Edward Churt (Jamie De Courcey), a high society portrait painter and married to Carol, the seductive red head and femme fatale played by the excellent Dorothea Myer-Bennet. The first act is set in Edward's Knightsbridge studio with elegant furniture and a cocktail trolley to hand.

In the very first scene, at 2.30 am, Edward hides in the dark when he hears voices and giggling at the door and he is lurking behind his easel when his vivacious wife Carol comes in with a beau, the rather vapid Harry Challoner (Alex Corbet Burcher). Why Carol should find Harry more entertaining than her own husband, we don't know but the dancing and alcohol help.

Later in this act, a few weeks later, Edward will paint society heiress Margot (Grace Thurgood) and entertain Zoe (Georgina Rylance), who was involved with Edward before both of them got married to someone else. Zoe is now divorced and reminds us that in the 1920s in order to get a divorce, there was a petitioner and a guilty party. Often the accused would agree to be found in a compromising position in order for the divorce to take place.

Critical etiquette prevents me from revealing any more of the plot, except to say that it will turn and twist into an area when someone is lying and you therefore cannot be sure about the truth of anything that is said.

Evie or Evelyn Bathhurst (Robert Portal) is ex-army, a bachelor friend of Edward's who would like to help his friend but who is also conflicted.

We have a play of intense emotion and incisive skirmish with Coward's magnificently controlled dialogue: the clipped tones of British stiff upper lip delivery where everything happens just beneath the surface. It is all the more shocking when the code of restraint is broken by Carol. It is obvious that Coward is writing about his real life acquaintances combining social observation with the wit of the clever, cocktail quaffing classes.

Dorothea Myer-Bennet as Carol is an unfulfilled woman whose unhappiness strikes at others . Her convincing performance dominates this play and she is portrayed as largely unsympathetic. Jamie de Courcey as Edward is contemplative and slow to anger, likeable but is he weak? Georgina Rylance's Zoe is serious but unconventional, ultimately more honest than Carol. Robert Portal's Evie is full of contradiction with a period manly exterior. I liked too the cameos of sitter Margot (Grace Thurgood) and her manfriend affable Bobby (Nicholas Audsley), the portrait of a couple before the ennui sets in.

Belinda Lang understands these finely drawn characters well with impeccable body language but occasionally the diagonals are blocked with parts of the audience unable to see either face of two speaking actors in the Finborough's small space.

In recent years the Finborough's productions have started to be well designed, dressed and furnished in period and we were all gasping for a period cocktail and a cigarette at the interval.

This Was a Man is a minor Coward play but it has an emotional depth, a study of divorce convention and hypocrisy and deserves to be produced. The ending is sudden and maybe unsatisfactory but there are rarely neat endings in dramas of infidelity and hurt. The Finborough is unparalleled in bringing to the fore these rarities of fine but unproduced drama.

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This Was a Man
Written by Noel Coward
Directed by Belinda Lang

With: Dorothea Myer-Bennett, Jamie De Courcey, Nicholas Audsley, Georgina Rylance, Robert Portal, Grace Thurgood, Alex Corbet Burcher
Set Designer: Simon Kenny
Lighting: Matt Eagland
Sound Design: Max Pappenheim
Associate Costume Designer: Jessica Knight
Running time: One hour 55 minutes with an interval
Box Office 0844 847 1652 but booking online is recommended
Booking to 2nd August 2014
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 17th July 2014 performance at the Finborough, Finborough Road London SW10 9ED (Tube: Earls Court)
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