John Osborne once remarked of Noël Coward: "Mr Coward is his own invention and contribution to the 20th century". And Coward's career spanned more reinventions than Madonna's - "Never come out of the same hole twice", he advised film director David Lean.
Throughout his creative lifetime he certainly followed his own precept. Coward was alternately 1920s Angry Young Man (The Vortex), Voice of the Jazz Age in his interwar heyday and Conscience of the Nation (Cavalcade). When after the Second World War his plays (although not his songs) bloated in a withdrawal from England first emotional and then geographical in tax exile, he carved out new careers by wowing Las Vegas ("Nescafé Society") in cabaret and taking on (less successfully) the 1960s Broadway musical before assuming the mantle of Grand Old Man of the British Stage as his early successes were revived and his songs anthologised (he dubbed this late reflowering "Dad's Renaissance").
None of his personae was more potently enduring than that of his 1930s suavely brilliantined romantic stage-partnership with Gertrude Lawrence, despite his homosexuality. They met as child actors ("She gave me an apple, told me a few mildly dirty stories, and I loved her from then onwards") and although they acted together again in only three productions, the whole "Noel and Gertie" myth captured the imagination of a public hungry for stage equivalents of the sophisticated elegance of the Astaire/Rogers musicals.
After their triumph in the comedy of bad manners Private Lives (1930), arguably his masterpiece, Coward turned to creating another "star quality" vehicle, but with his horror of repeating himself, and cosmic boredom with long runs of the same play, he came up in 1935 with no less than nine vehicles - short plays presented in trios over three evenings - six of which are now revived at the Chichester Festival Theatre.
The series, called Tonight at 8.30, was designed to showcase the whole range of the Coward/ Lawrence team's acting, singing and dancing talents, ranging from echoes of the moonlight-and-cocktails world of Private Lives in the similarly "jagged with sophistication" Shadow Play, or in We Were Dancing, set on his imaginary tropical island of Samolo, his recurring preserved-in-amber colonial world. The plays also cover the ripe music-hall sketch of Red Peppers, virtuoso high comedy in Hands Across the Sea (based on his friends the Mountbattens) and earnest psychodrama in the study of a psychiatrist's suicide, The Astonished Heart.
The jackpot rang again in the West End and on Broadway for Tonight at 8.30. One of the most popular plays (not included at Chichester where, rightly, the Coward Estate wishes to highlight the less familiar) was Still Life, a clenched tale of passion's self-denial set in a railway-station buffet, subsequently immortalised on screen as Brief Encounter. Others had less luck - We Were Dancing, mangled by MGM for Norma Shearer; a dire, portmanteau-movie (Meet Me Tonight) of three including Red Peppers; and, surprisingly even worse, The Astonished Heart in which Coward ill advisedly insisted on replacing Michael Redgrave as the riven shrink with himself in his own screenplay.
Intriguingly, given their largely indifferent screen transfers and Coward's then inexperience of film, the plays often exploit cinematic techniques - flashbacks in the split time-scale of The Astonished Heart and in the surprisingly experimental Shadow Play a mix of the theatrical equivalents of split-screen as well as flashbacks. Shadow Play also interweaves music - one of Coward's loveliest romantic numbers ("You Were There") and that hauntingly bleak song of love's evanescence, "Then". Family Album, a sly glance at Victorian hypocrisy, incorporates a delightful pastiche score, and Red Peppers includes pungent music-hall routines. Their director at Chichester, Lucy Bailey, plans to integrate further the musical element, with the band playing during intervals and post-show in the Minerva Theatre's bar.
The plays have hardly languished neglected - after a below-par 1980s West End revival of three, Sheridan Morley's Noël and Gertie, incorporating extracts from most of the nine, became a London regular over the years - but in this new scrutiny Bailey may succeed in dusting off the traces of the "Noël and Gertie" cobwebs still shrouding the plays.
She is using unstarry and, for her leads, younger (Coward and Lawrence were in their thirties) actors headed by Alexander Hanson and Josefina Gabrielle (as Bailey says, "If you don't get that pair right, you're sunk").
Bailey's first encounter with Coward, an amateur Hay Fever aside, was on reading, in her early twenties, Shadow Play and The Astonished Heart, both of which she found striking in "the boldness of their stage technique and modern voice". While most critics tend to agree with John Lahr, the outstanding commentator on the playwright, that "only at his most frivolous is Coward in any sense profound", Bailey sees, for instance, in The Astonished Heart a piece full of "the tragedy of human passion and obsession".
Coward was also trying to give a boost to a dying genre - "the short play has a great advantage over a long one in that it can sustain a mood without technical creaking or padding".
And for Bailey, each play, although brief, is "fully-formed" with "a satisfying and self-justifying appeal" so that each evening can be as nourishing as a three-course meal rather than one of three starters.
Tonight at 8.30, Festival Theatre, Chichester (01243 781312) 13 July to 2 SeptemberReuse content