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Tonight at 8.30

"It is a gay, unpretentious little play, and it was acted by Gertie with incomparable brilliance. I cannot think of it without remembering the infinite variety of her inflections; her absurd scatterbrained conversations on the telephone; her frantic desire to be hospitable and charming and her expression of blank dismay when she suddenly realised that her visitors were not who she thought they were at all."
— Noel Coward writing about Hands Across the Sea
Tonight at 8.30
Nick Waring as Alec and Miranda Foster as Laura in Still Life (Photo: Robert Workman)
We know that Jermyn Street excels at revivals of rare gems from the 1920s and 1930s and under artistic director Tom Littler, his commitment to that era is expressed in programming nine of Noel Coward's one act plays to play alongside each other, in three sets of three. I was fortunate enough to see all nine in one day, which of course serves to underline the similarities and the contrasts.

Although the whole cast rotates on this occasion, when they were originally seen in 1936, Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence played the dominant roles in each play, which of course would have impressed with their acting versatility.

Most of the plays have some music or dance or song. For this Coward season at Jermyn Street, three plays have been grouped as Bedroom Farces, three more as Nuclear Families and another three as Secret Hearts.

The opening play of Bedroom Farces, We Were Dancing is a satirical take on the loves and lives of the British abroad in the Empire. Set somewhere in a colony in the South Seas, a romance takes on a torrid passion to match the tropical humidity and heat. At one point Louise (Sara Crowe) compares her passion to seismic forces, "Forked lightning, tidal wave, cataclysmic earthquake – all these things and more!" I think it's called hyperbole.

Louise is announcing to her husband Hubert Charteris (Nick Waring) that she and Karl Sandys (Ian Hallard) have instantly fallen in love. Hubert's sister Clara (Rosemary Ashe) is attempting to give advice but Hubert rejects this. Despite their ability to break into song, Louise and Karl's romance falls foul of practicalities when it emerges that the next day Karl has to set sail for the Antipodes and their heady romance pops like a South Sea Bubble. Stefan Bednarczyk plays the piano for period tunes.

The second play in this cycle is Ways and Means, set in a bedroom on the Cote D'Azure where Stella and Toby Cartwright (Miranda Foster and Nick Waring) are down on their luck. Olive Lloyd-Ransome (Sara Crowe) is asking them to leave her villa but Nick has lost their last sou at the casino and they cannot afford the train fare nor pay what they owe the servants to move on to the next host in Italy. After a breakfast when Toby peels his croissant (don't ask me why?), the arrival of a burglar presents an opportunity. This is a look at the very mannered, spoilt classes living off inherited wealth.

The last piece, Shadow Play looks at the Gayforths, Victoria (Sara Crowe) and Simon (Ian Hallard) whose marriage is disintegrating. It is set in their Mayfair house in London. Victoria, in an attempt to sleep despite the emotional turmoil, has taken one too many sleeping pills. Simon's new love Sybil (Miranda Foster) appears complete with long cigarette holder. Her name makes us think of Coward's earlier play Private Lives, "Don't quibble Sybil!" and she makes up the triangle. Simon thinks back to when he and Victoria were in love and they replay the early days of their romance to restorative effect. This play has Simon singing Coward's lovely song, "You Were There".

Nuclear Families opens with a change of era back to the Victorian days of the1860s, in Family Album where a large family are gathered after the death of the controlling patriarch. Sara Crowe's spinster Lavinia quivers with emotion and the play has many one liners, often non sequiturs which make us laugh. The grown up children manage to recreate their youth when they rediscover a dressing up box and a music box. Fuelled by glasses of Madeira, Lavinia and the butler Burrows (Stefan Bednarczyk) rebel and reveal a family secret.

In Hands Across the Sea, Lady Maureen Gilpin known as Piggie (Miranda Foster) is returning hospitality to people she's met on holiday or abroad with no recollection as to who they are. I liked this piece the best for the Hon. Clare Wedderburn (Rosemary Ashe)'s outrageous, outspoken witticisms. "Are you going to Thingee's for dinner?" asks Piggie. "Not without an anaesthetic!" says Clare. The naval couple in this play were said to have been modelled on Lord Louis Mountbatten and his wealthy wife Edwina who were forever entertaining.

The Astonished Heart is a parallel with Brief Encounter except here Barbara (Miranda Foster) stays away in the country to care for a relative, leaving her husband psychiatrist Chris (Nick Waring) to go to the theatre with her school friend Leonora Vail (Sara Crowe), with whom he commences a passionate affair. His ultra understanding wife in an early example of Zen Buddhism encourages him to run away with the other woman. I found the last half of this play extremely tedious, as the self indulgent Chris wallows in his own created melodrama, and his protracted protestations of love unconvincing.

Secret Hearts starts with Star Chamber a committee meeting of the board of a charity set up to care for aged actors and actresses. Noel Coward was chairman for 21 years of such a charity. The agenda is constantly thrown by an excess of egos as theatre people exaggerate their own part. This play remained with a once off, single matinee performance in the 1930s until 1960 when it made the Williamstown Festival repertoire.

Red Peppers is a sketch based on a music hall act of Lily Pepper (Rosemary Ashe) and George Pepper (Jeremy Rose). At the beginning of the play they are squabbling with intensity but the arrival of Mr Edwards, the theatre manager (Nick Waring) unites the Peppers. Two music hall type songs recreate the atmosphere of a music hall show.

The final play in the Secret Hearts trilogy is Still Life which evolved into the film Brief Encounter about the meeting of two married people in a station room buffet and tempted by infidelity. There is good work from the rest of the cast with Myrtle Baggot (Rosemary Ashe) the manageress of the Refreshment Room, her assistant Beryl (Boadicea Ricketts) and Ben Wiggins as Beryl's boyfriend Stanley but the starring roles are Miranda Foster as agonised Laura Jesson and Nick Waring as Alec Harvey in the affair which never was. I did like the frame for all the plays of this restrained ending in Still Life with the start We Were Dancing's open declarations of faux romance.

Coward wrote these short plays it is said because he was bored by longer plays and while the witty sketches are fun and the songs pretty, I longed for deeper characterization which is possible in longer plays. The social composition of the 1930s is such an age from where we find ourselves now that it is hard to empathise with Coward's rather spoilt characters.

All credit to Jermyn Street Theatre for providing the opportunity to see these stylish plays onstage with the tremendous logistics needed for the 1930s furniture and wardrobes of costume changes to be stored in this tiny West End space. It is a Goliath of a feat!

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Tonight at 8.30
Plays written and music composed by Noel Coward
Directed by Tom Littler
Starring: Jeremy Rose, Miranda Foster, Sara Crowe, Ian Hallard, Boadicea Ricketts, Rosemary Ashe, Ben Wiggins, Nick Waring, Stefan Bednarczyk
Set Design: Louie Whitemore
Costume Design: Emily Stuart
Sound Design: Tom Attwood
Lighting Design: Tim Mascall
Choreography: Gabriella Bird
Musical Director: Stefan Bednarczyk
Running time: Each section of three plays around Two hours 30 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7287 2875
Booking to 20th May 2018
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 21st April 2018 performance at the Jermyn Street Theatre, 16b Jermyn Street, London SW1Y 6ST (Tube: Piccadilly Circus)
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