By Noel Coward
When Somerset Maugham said that Noel Coward was the future of British playwriting, he probably didn’t think that that future would extend into a new century, but here we are, Private Lives resurrected regularly by most state theatre companies, Hay Fever with Judi Dench breaking records in London, even his short plays on television, and a wonderfully stylish production with Amanda Muggleton and Dennis Olsen of the three standards We were dancing, Red Peppers and Shadow Play in Brisbane only three years ago. Certainly Coward is played more frequently and in more places than his old rival Willie Maugham, and while he feared the possibility of appearing in Willie’s “venomous” memoirs, he was not afraid to include a line of his own in Cole Porter’s “Let’s do it”, “Somerset and all the Maughams do it.”
Which brings me to a minor quibble: why substitute Jones and Kahn’s “It had to be you” for Coward’s own “Some day I’ll find you” which was written for the play? Same period almost (a little earlier, 1924), but without the resonance – or maybe familiarity — of Coward’s own music and lyrics which inject a noticeably bittersweet irony (his previous musical play had been called, fittingly enough, Bittersweet) into the comments about cheap music and its potency, whereas the Gus Kahn lyrics merely underscore the marital games in a lighthearted and pretty obvious way. This said, the music as a whole was a great sing/humalong, toe-tapping accompaniment to the play even in the intervals.
This is a production with style and energy which, for me, broke away from the frequent Coward trap of mimicry and/or parody and an overload of “authenticity”. We’ve all heard the fruity Cowardisms repeated in production after production — my favourite is “Amanda, darling, I know every particle of you” which I wait for with the same expectation as Wilde’s handbag. It’s that word “particle” enunciated with exquisite knowingness that gets me every time. But they didn’t even use it here, and I wasn’t disappointed, because the wit, the languorous elegance, the sparkle and the glossy brilliantine were all superbly done (the latter giving me a touch of Dame Edna’s Oroton blindness at times).
Despite the program notes directing you toward a fairly ponderous reading of the play as all about modern marriage and the wilful disregard of moral principles, the production transcended the limits of this reading and took the audience closer to Coward’s more adventurous dissection of the between-wars mutually dependent upper classes and the bohemian literary and theatrical world in which he moved himself, a little bit like a mix of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies and Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. The great New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael reviewing Julie Andrews (disastrously) in a musical about Gertrude Lawrence said of Lawrence that “The chic of the twenties playgirl was that she was so supremely casual she appeared brittle. Her high style was the concealment of feeling — deliberate superficiality…she made a game of snobbery — a snobbery based on style rather than on wealth. She had the sort of insolent confidence that made mannerisms into a style of life. She was what drag queens want to be.” The character of Lawrence as she epitomised the twenties playgirl, whether as Amanda or as drag queen manqué, is certainly the spur for Elyot’s wonderful “futile moralists” speech in Act 2; the self-mockery of the dance and the parodic singing in this Act and the Solomon Isaacs two-minute silences all contribute to this profound realisation of emptiness and the need to fill the moments of this “marvellous” age in which countries of the world could be encapsulated and thus dismissed in a single appropriate adjective.
Perhaps the lesson is not to read the program notes, or at least not to be guided by them, because this production is so much more than the implications they offer. The principals are superbly cast. Jean-Marc Russ as Elyot and Helen Christinson as Amanda are a great team, their chemistry is believable and the geography lesson is a highlight. If at times Russ sounds a little like a cross between Rex Harrison and Eric Blore, that funny little sidekick in the Fred and Ginge movies, that might just be because his rounded vowels are the most authentic. He certainly wears a tux well and handles a cigarette deftly. Christinson is a delight. She emphasises Amanda’s intelligence and sense of play, and she looks gorgeous. I was reminded of Fred and Ginge again when Christinson first appeared in a pastel green confection with yards of feathers around the neck and shoulders. Apparently Fred loathed Ginge’s preference for feathered garments, which only encouraged her to wear more of the same, her sweet revenge for the tedium of constant dance practice.
The comic timing of the four principals was impeccable. I was particularly impressed by Annie Maynard’s Sibyl, who, even though her Aussie vowels were occasionally in evidence, is an engaging and empty-headed beauty, the offspring of one of Coward’s “futile moralists” who doesn’t quite know how to counter Elyot’s scarifying opinion of her mother other than with a pout. She and James Evans as Victor develop and regress in a diverting and satisfactory way that is a fine balance to Russ and Christinson’s powerful duopoly. And the drop-down, knockout fights in both instances were beautifully choreographed.
Robert Kemp’s design is bold and striking, the clothes exquisite, and the sets, based on Raoul Dufy’s paintings of the French Riviera, colourful and adventurous. Not sure about cocktails in flutes, but there we go. The Dufy overlaying the walls, doors and windows in Amanda’s Paris apartment is a brave way to carry through the power of the earlier image of the idle rich, and for me it worked, particularly as the balconies in Act 1 were too high for comfort and gave me a crick in the neck in the front stalls.
It’s funny what works for an audience: great hoots and applause at a line like “Catholics don’t recognise divorce” and rousing, loyal applause for Carol Burns’ far too tedious French maid. My applause was for the sensitive understanding of Coward evidenced in Michael Gow’s direction, and the intelligence and style of the four principals.
Directed by Michael Gow
Playing until 4 November 2006: Tues 6.30pm; Wed-Sat 7.30pm; matinees Wed 1pm, Sat 2pm
Running time: 2½ hours including 2 intervals