By Noel Coward
Directed by Jessica Swale
Designed by Simon Kenney
Music composed by Paul Herbert
A Salisbury Playhouse Production
Saturday 12th September 2015, 19.30
Carolyn Backhouse as Jane
Jackie Clune as Julia
Lucy Thackeray as Jasmine Saunders, the maid
William Travis as Fred, Julia’s husband
Callum Coates as Willy, Jane’s husband
Gregory Finnegan as Maurice, the Frenchman
After years of going to Salisbury matinees, we deliberately chose evening hoping for a livelier audience. The play was a scandal when first performed in 1925, featuring two women, both married for five years and best friends, discussing Maurice, a Frenchman they both had an affair with seven years earlier, two years before they married. Jane’s affair was in Venice, Julia’s in Pisa, though what a 1925 audience imagined they were doing in Italy in 1918, during the Great War, I don’t know. It may have perplexed them as much as the “immoral behaviour.” Their husbands don’t know about this pre-marital passion, and being pompous golfers would be appalled. The Society of Authors used to have local lunches at a golf club, and the fine attention to detail on notices had me in fits of laughter. Who spends their life worrying about the exact appropriate date for the wearing of shorts, and the length and permitted colour of long socks? Certainly here a man in plus fours and Argyll socks got a laugh just by walking on.
Fallen Angels was first performed in the same year as Hay Fever, and it’s lesser-known Coward. In the programme, Jessica Swales notes that they cast Jane and Julia older than normal, to give the play a different weighting in commenting on marriage.
Model of the set. Doors open at rear
The set is a circular room, and it’s done as 1925, the default with Coward being to set it when he wrote it. The double back doors to the apartment, steps and piano are default Coward too. The one jarring note was the very conventional charity shop landscape picture against the elegant 1920s wallpaper and lights. I guessed something would be done with, and sure enough when the two women are expecting Maurice’s visit they make the place romantic … strewn rose petals, and the picture is turned over to show a nude with ginger public hair on the reverse, like a (poor) imitation Egon Schiele painting. Now that fits the period, they have good business with it and get laughs. I think the charity shop landscape should be replaced with something bland which fitted the period too … it jarred with the set.
As normal, acts one and two were joined (very well, by a song and piano from the maid, Saunders), and act three came after the interval. They finished the whole thing by 9.25 … five minutes short of two hours, including interval. so it’s short.
Saunders (Lucy Thackeray) at the piano
Act one had me thinking this was lesser quality Noel Coward as well as lesser-known. Very theatrical, lots of smart quips, and most of the humour came from the maid, Jasmine, who the snotty Julia and Fred decide to address as Saunders. Lucy Thackeray as Saunders looked like Victoria Wood, and sang and played piano like her too. One of the greatest delights of the play is watching her facial and physical reactions to the chaos that ensues. The running gag is that Saunders is well-spoken, and has been everywhere, done everything and worked for much more interesting people than Julia and Fred. In any situation she can top it, correct them, do it better … whether it’s playing piano, speaking French or knowing the best golf clubs for a course. Saunders is a good comic creation. I wondered about the other running gag that they tell Saunders that they’re expecting both a foreign gentleman and a plumber. A missed opportunity by Noel Coward, leading to potential confusion as exploited by Peter Shaeffer in Black Comedy.
Jane and June get started
The play really takes off in Act Two, and the continual hilarious stage business that carries the act, must be Jessica Swales as Director rather than the text. The two friends, Julia and Jane, are hoping for the expected return of Maurice, their French lover boy. They put on evening dresses, and wait … then as time passes they start the dinner that Saunders has prepared and delivers. They proceed to get royally pissed on Martinis, champagne, wine and Benedictine, ending up falling all over the place. One of the 1925 shocks was women getting very very drunk, and this elevates it to drunk at 2015 High Street Friday night face on the pavement knickers in the air bladdered drunk. The set gets strewn with flowers, broken cigarettes, shoes. Jane’s attempt to answer the telephone got rare mid-scene applause. The whole Act is a three piece tour de force … Julia and Jane arguing furiously, Saunders continually serving food and … well, just giving us expressions. The play rests entirely on the three female roles … the men are written as merely blustering ciphers plus a gigolo. Act Two is so funny that Act Three, the morning after, can’t really compete, though it has a good farce denouement. No plot spoilers.
It gets physical!
I assume this version was much more physical than before, or than Coward had intended. The back doors are used as an inner stage at times to show the husbands on the golf course, the women choosing clothes etc. None of that is in the original. I had a revelation with Noel Coward, back in 2003 with Present Laughter, directed by Dominic Dromgoole. Rick Mayall took the lead, the part that Coward himself had played. Mayall added business, was irreverent, stepped slightly outside the role and was very very funny. I’m sure Coward would have approved of added business and theatricality and creative irreverence. As here.
I also guess this was a Preview. We amateur reviewers don’t really look at what’s preview or not, we just book tickets, but full marks to Salisbury, September 10th to 15th is reduced price, so I guess a short sensible preview period before national press … not full price previews for three weeks as with Hamlet at the Barbican. My companion commented that splendid as all the physical business was in Act 2, it betrayed a little “early stages” hesitation in timing, that another few performances will sharpen. We discussed the choice of casting … both Julia and Jane were flat out in physical business and extremely funny, but we both thought Coward had intended thirty-somethings.
We look forward to seeing Jessica Swale’s writing in Nell Gwynne at The Globe soon.
NOEL COWARD REVIEWED ON THIS BLOG:
Bath Theatre Royal has been the Noel Coward specialist theatre since I started this blog. Just before I started it, we saw Private Lives at Salisbury one week, then a different production just afterwards at Bath. The Salisbury Private Lives was the better. Bath did Fallen Angels in 2014, but we missed it.