By Noel Coward
Directed by Trevor Nunn
Bath Theatre Royal
27th June 2013 matinee
It’s 1951. Nigel, Earl of Marshwood plans to marry Hollywood star Miranda Frayle. We start the play in his stately home, ruled over by his mother, the redoubtable Dowager Countess Felicity (Patricia Hodge). Problem: her much-loved lady’s maid, Moxie is upset, and with good reason. The earl’s bride-to-be is Moxie’s nasty little sister, who fled home for Hollywood twenty years earlier (1931) and became a star. She hasn’t seen Moxie in the meantime and won’t recognize her. Moxie feels she must leave her job of twenty years at once. How can the countess maintain her relationship with her maid, and get rid of the obnoxious Miranda? Moxie has to be promoted from lady’s maid to “family friend” and keep schtum while Miranda lies about her past.
L to R: Felicity, Moxie, Peter, Creswell
The programme notes by director Trevor Nunn reference Downton Abbey. The essay on 1951 references Downton Abbey. So do the reviews. There’s even a picture from Downton Abbey in the programme. The motivation for this production seems to be toffs and tarts and butlers and maids are currently popular after the success of the TV series. Go for it. The play is NOT Private Lives, nor is it Blithe Spirit but you can’t do Private Lives more often than every other year or so, and Noel Coward fills the seats, at matinees at least. Bath can sell out a Noel Coward a year and has done for years. They’ve run out of the good ones and are exploring the less-favoured ones. Noel Coward has a valuable social role in entertaining a lot of elderly people who don’t get out much. We do the matinees because Bath is a two hour drive. Maybe a wider demographic attends evening shows.
The play? I went to Butlins in the 60s with my schoolfriend and his mum, and they had plays acted by the Redcoats, at three or four plays in six days. They were cliché-ridden contrived comedies with stereotypical characters played large. In retrospect, this could well have been one of them. It’s the sort of play that made the Angry Young Men inevitable in British theatre, and the only surprising thing about it is that anyone took the trouble to revive it. Coward’s play is no more than a comic potboiler with a few admittedly amusing smart and bitchy interchanges between clichéd characters. I’m not saying you won’t enjoy it. Most people will. It’s polished, professional and funny. And easy to follow.
Sisters: Moxie (in disguise) and Miranda
So what are the positives? The set is five-star if you want French-windowed triple entrance realistic country house. The cast are excellent, and comedy and sit-com experience counts: Patricia Hodge as the Countess, Caroline Quentin as Moxie, Rory Bremner (in his first stage drama) as Creswell, the butler are the three featured names. Add Katherine Kingsley as Miranda, Ben Mansfield as Hollywood star and her old flame, Don Lucas and Steven Pacey as Peter, the Countess’s gay cousin and confidante. All perform clichéd roles superbly. Patricia Hodge is smoothly taking over the role Penelope Keith did so well for years: the authoritative, aristocratic, smartly-dressed, brusque, clever, superior woman. No one does it better, and there are enough plays from Wilde through to Coward where that character is central. Rory Bremner proves yet again my theory that all good comedians / impersonators are good actors, and Creswell the butler is the only two-dimensional role in the play. The rest are one-dimensional. No one hits three dimensions. Caroline Quentin has the most enjoyable role as she has to listen quietly while Miranda lies for England about her sordid “cockeney” upbringing. Lovely reactive acting.
The roles of Miranda and Don,the Hollywood stars, are I feel Noel Coward’s snooty view of Hollywood acting: emoting, getting into it rather than trading smart carefully-composed and patronizing quips. In reality, Miranda and Don were the future. The smart quips were already old hat in 1951. Both actors are wonderful in their parts.
Felicity with love-lorn Hollywood star, Don
The negatives? It’s merely a second-rate play with a creakingly contrived plot and ending, that’s the towering negative. There was not much interesting or different in the direction, except that the play was interspersed with projected 1951 newsreels between scenes. These are supposed to show the play was social commentary on 1951 and Britain’s class system. Coward no doubt thought he was analyzing the class system too, but as ever, as soon as he deviates from cleverly-quipping smart people, any attempt at any other dialogue falls straight into “Gor love-a-duck, m’um, you ain’t arf a right one, and there’s no mistake.’
Creswell: Rory Bremner does a superb butler
The “butcher” newsreel sequence on rationing was very good, with the real quotes from 1951. Even better was the third newsreel showing Miranda (faked to look like 1951) arriving in England from Hollywood with a facsimile 1951 voiceover matching the other newsreels. In the second half it was instructive to see how wildly Advanced RP (Advanced Received Pronunciation) the then Princess Elizabeth was in the year before she became queen.
I’m going to go to town on racism. OK, it was 1951. When we got home, we had received a 1949 magazine in the post, which unknown to us when we ordered it, included a knitting pattern for a child’s jumper with a border of dancing boys, entitled Ten Little Nigger Boys. I’m not denying the reality. In the play, Coward has the line ‘happy as a sandboy’ (SEE BELOW) which I would have cut without thinking about it, but then (in common with the Guardian reviewer) I would have cut thirty minutes from the padded-out two and a half hours running time anyway. But the unforgiveable to me, was that at the end, Felicity has no money for the church collection and asks her cousin, Peter, to find some money. He comes on with a grotesque big-lipped African-head moneybox. Worse, the audience laughed. My old test: how would you feel with an Afro-Caribbean friend sitting next to you? I’m not saying it should be swept under the carpet: this year Privates on Parade and Fences both show the racism of the past in a way that it can be discussed. This isn’t the same. It’s getting a cheap laugh from an ugly caricature.
OK, 1951 was casually and cruelly racist, but there is no excuse for perpetuating it. The African caricature head can’t be in the script. It must have taken a great deal of trouble to source the head. I ask anyone associated with the production to justify it. I challenge any of the cast to argue why they did NOT say, ‘Sorry, Mr Nunn, I’m not comfortable with this.’ A pink piggy bank, or any childish money box would have delivered just as big a laugh. Trevor Nunn, and by extension, theatres presenting this should be ashamed of themselves, and the money box should be cut from subsequent performances. It’s casual and gratuitous racism.
GRATUTITOUS SMOKING NOTE
One of the worst I’ve seen. Ten cigarettes, one cigar at least, not one of them demanded by lines in the text. Yes, everyone puffed madly in those days, but if it’s not demanded by the script, why do it?
The exception is Moxie (Caroline Quentin) stressed out by her sister’s lies, reaching for the silver cigarette box and lighting a cigarette without asking for permission. Very funny.
I dislike the Bath summer programme with four plays in it. The cast for all four are mixed up in alphabetical order … they should be divided into the four plays. We have tickets for all four, but we won’t bring the programme back with us every time. We won’t remember. It’s a bargain at £4,and each play has two essays, but I’d rather buy four separate ones.
HAPPY AS A SANDBOY
Dictionary references put this one back to Charles Dickens, who used jolly as a sandboy, and define sand boys as people delivering sand to sprinkle on pub floors (“a boy hawking sand” in the Shorter Oxford), so with access to beer, so happy. No … others note that it was used in the 20th century as a minced version of “sambo” and that in 1950s comics, Melanesian Pacific Islanders in grass skirts on idyllic islands were “sand boys.” I know that; several friends I checked with know that. The dictionary doesn’t. Who knows over Coward? He may well have referenced the Dickens, but later shifts would render it missable.
Blithe Spirit, Bath 2010
This Happy Breed, Bath 2011
Hay Fever Bath Theatre Royal 2014
Fallen Angels, Salisbury Playhouse 2015