Rumbling volcanoes on the Essex estuary: not the sound of discontent from Dagenham's Ford works down the road, but the remarkable noise of a NoÃ«l Coward premiere in a seaside provincial theatre. Volcano, written in 1956 during Coward's celebrity self-exile in Jamaica, was never produced at the time, his star having fallen in a post-war era. Fifty years later, it has now been plucked from the archives by the writer Mark Ashurst, whose enthusiasm has resulted in its debut at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff-on-Sea.
Directed by Roy Marsden with a lively young cast and wonderfully out-of-kilter set, the production sees Ibsenesque qualities in this tale of tropical infidelity. Meanwhile the Coward Estate looks on, regarding the Essex experiment as a try-out for greater things. After last year's centenary glut, it's a crucial test of the playwright's ongoing reputation. If it works, then the bright lights of Shaftesbury Avenue beckon; if not, then no one has really noticed the botched world premiere of a NoÃ«l Coward play.
Well, on Thursday night's showing, it was still difficult to tell. As its producer Julius Green notes, the play has never had the benefit of authorial editing in rehearsal. On the other hand, the cuts Marsden has initiated, while intelligent, have also lost one crucial line which, for me, defines the historical shock value of this sexually overt work. Guy Littleton - the rouÃ© based on Coward's Jamaican neighbour Ian Fleming - has just seduced the young bride Ellen Danbury. But when her engineer husband arrives, he too confesses that another love has undermined their marriage. The ingenuous Ellen (Louise Butcher) asks Keith (Ryan Philpott), "Who was it you loved so much? Who twisted up your whole life?" At which point the butler announces, "Mr Guy Littleton."
By cutting out the flunkeys (considered racist) from the play, there's no-one to make this revealing announcement; the frisson of subversive sex is therefore undermined, and Guy Littleton is left pretty much as a cardboard Casanova, which is the way Anthony Edridge almost has to play him. He is no match for the play's central figure, Adele Shelley, a 40-ish plantation widow who too has succumbed to passion, but in Paris, and in the past. Guy now seeks to seduce her, but as a Cowardian heroine, made world-weary by all the Coward heroines before her, she tells him, in what should be a passionate curtain-closing speech: "You wreak too much havoc, swaggering your way through people's lives touting your illusion that physical love is the one irreplaceable ecstasy. I'm tired of the noise you make with your shrill, boastful trumpeting. Please go away and leave me alone." In the text, Adele then dashes to the floor the seashells brought to her by Guy (just as Fleming brought shells to Adele's real-life model, Blanche Blackwell), a potent symbol of the destructiveness of his philandering. Here, Adele - beautifully played by Elizabeth Elvin - merely crushes a winkle under her heel.
The faint sense of flatness will undoubtedly improve; it was a nervy first night, perhaps overly conscious of the import of the production. Volcano was written in the same year that The Birthday Party opened in London; despite its genesis in the bright light of Jamaica, rather than the austere gloom of Britain, there were darker themes in Coward's piece which could yet give the Angry Young Men a run for their money. To justify Mark Ashurst's faith in the play, the task facing future directors of Volcano is to elicit Pinteresque power from the merely colonial cocktail. Marsden and company have begun that process, and have managed to make an impressive fist of it. Go and see it: if the Coward Estate isn't impressed, you might never have the chance again.