THEATRE / A touch of class: Paul Taylor reviews Noel Coward's Relative Values at Chichester

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The Independent Culture
HOW TIMES change. Dyspeptic with distaste for post-war social levelling, Noel Coward's 1951 comedy Relative Values invites us to picture the predicament of a poor darling of a Countess when her son and heir announces his intention to marry a waning Hollywood film star who was reared in Brixton. These days, of course, the positions might well be reversed. What with the likelihood of her daughter ending up bugged, photographed topless, or spliced to a junkie, it's the movie star's mother who could be forgiven for going spare at the thought of an aristocratic engagement.

In the play, the Countess's problem is compounded by the fact that Moxie, her devoted personal maid for 20 years, is even more against the match and hands in her resignation. It turns out that Moxie is the star's older sister, bitterly resentful at the way she swanned off to the States, leaving her in sole charge of their sick mother. So that the two can be reunited on equal terms, the Countess offers to raise Moxie to the status of companion-secretary. Not that the star is likely to recognise her sibling after so long.

I had, to be frank, fully expected to loathe this rare revival of the play at Chichester Festival Theatre. In the event, Tim Luscombe's canny, entertaining, stylishly performed production persuades you that Coward's comedy, though reactionary beyond question, is not quite as clear-cut as its reputation suggests.

For a start, the play quickly establishes that the movie actress (Sarah Brightman) is a liar and gold digger, so it's not simply that she's the wrong class that renders her ineligible. Nor is the portrait of the toff uniformly flattering. A beautifully judged mix of fluting daffiness and covert calculation, Susan Hampshire's wonderful Countess whisks the evening along, but the production makes sure that you notice the chips in the charm. Coward invests this Establishment figure and her co-plotting sidekick Peter (Edward Duke being tres impishly camp) with some of the clannish flightiness he imparted to his Bohemian folk in plays about the aristocracy of talent. In the context of this comedy, where social engineering has the air of a scatty game of charades, it's a characteristic that grates more than Coward may have recognised. He knew, though, that the son (Paul Rattigan), was just a glorified stuffed shirt.

Obviously, a play that ends with a butler offering a contented toast to the final disintegration of the spurious ideal of social equality isn't going to be wholly free of snobbery. Giving Moxie a gruff, no-nonsense edge, Alison Fiske admirably strives not to condescend to the character. But the uproarious sequence in which, statue- stiff in one of her mistress' 'Molyneux' gowns and sporting a ludicrous topknot, this underling is forced to pass herself off as a family intimate, comes across as a reactionary reworking of the much superior tea party scene in Shaw's Pygmalion. Ms Fiske is splendid, as she stuffs an unco-operative cigarette holder down her cleavage or attempts to elocute pally put-downs to her shocked superiors. All the same, you feel slightly cheap laughing at her. In general, though, this production is classy without pulling rank.

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