I'm so very revived these days, my dear: Why Noël Coward is back in fashion

Very fashionable, Coward. And suddenly so very contemporary, with productions simply all over the place.

His plays belong to the jazz age, full of the wit, sophistication and, some critics claim, shallowness of the roaring 1920s and decadent 1930s.

Yet Noël Coward – who, with his clipped upper-class accent and cigarette holder, cut a dash as the archetypal Englishman – is back with a string of revivals running or planned for New York and London.

Design for Living opened to rave reviews in London last week; while the actress Alison Steadman has just begun rehearsing for Blithe Spirit, which will open in London early next year. Later this month, the Olivier-award-winning actress Celia Imrie will star in Hay Fever at Sir Peter Hall's Rose Theatre in Kingston; Private Lives, which starred Kim Cattrall in London earlier this year, is transferring to Broadway, as is Kneehigh theatre's acclaimed version of Brief Encounter.

In his heyday before the Second World War Coward was a huge star on both sides of the Atlantic. He wrote more than 50 plays and 400-odd songs, including "Mad About the Boy" and "Mad Dogs and Englishmen", which have become standards. He was also a successful actor, often appearing in his own plays.

After the war his fame endured, but his plays seemed facile next to the gritty new realism of John Osborne, or against Samuel Beckett's intellectual depth.

When he died in 1973, aged 73, he was a figure from a different age, although his 70th birthday concert had seen more than 200 stars line up to pay tribute to him.

Now fans and producers say modern sensibilities are bringing a new appreciation to the full complexity of Coward's work – often about sexual morality and society's double standards – that was overlooked at the time.

"Design for Living has a lot to say about ways of living a life. It shows you can be moral and have principles without them being the normal principles of society," its producer Nica Burns said.

"I think there's a new audience for Coward. In the last three years there's been a renaissance," added Ms Burns, who is also president of the Society of London Theatre.

The play, a risqué 1932 comedy about a ménage à trois which was banned in the UK until 1939, is enjoying its first revival in 15 years.

"Society has changed radically in the last 10 years. Coward is incredibly complicated, and acting has become very naturalistic; but with a technical ability you can bring out the rhythm in Coward in a modern way, and that brings out the modernism in the plays," Ms Burns added.

John Knowles, chairman of the Noël Coward Society, maintains the Coward revival started 10 years ago and has gathered steam since.

"Felicity Kendal was in The Vortex in 2008," he said. "I don't think there's a minute in the day when there isn't a Coward play on somewhere in the world. Amateur theatres have very much kept him going. I went to see Design for Living and it's very modern, so much more than just witty. I saw Private Lives done by four young people and they really brought the sensuality out of it. His plays are being reinterpreted in so many ways and their freshness is being revealed."

The veteran theatre director Sir Peter Hall, who directed Kendal in The Vortex, added: "Coward is very witty and gets hold of an audience and does marvellous things on stage."

Design for Living

Written in 1932 as a star vehicle for his friends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, as well as Coward himself, Design for Living is about three people – two men and one woman – who decide they cannot live without each other. Its provocative subject matter was shocking at the time, and there is suspicion it is based on the relationship the three enjoyed before they became famous. "As happy a spectacle of surface skating as one might see," said The New York Sun.

Blithe Spirit

Novelist Charles Condomine gets more than he expected when he asks medium Madame Arcati (to be played by Alison Steadman) to conduct a séance. She summons the spirit of his dead wife, who is unhappy at his new marriage. Ran for a record 1,997 performances on its 1941 debut.

Brief Encounter

Celia Johnson is the married woman who falls for doctor Trevor Howard after meeting him at a railway station, but must sacrifice her passion to middle-class duty. Directed by David Lean and scripted by Coward, the 1945 film remains one of the most popular British movies of all time.

Private Lives

A classic plot – still stolen, notably by the US sitcom Frasier – in which a divorced couple find they are honeymooning with their new spouses in adjacent hotel rooms. Its 1930 London debut starred Coward and Laurence Olivier and it has, some critics claim, a gay subtext. "So slight as to be non-existent," the Times Literary Supplement said of the plot.

Hay Fever

A country-house farce which debuted in 1925. The four members of the Bliss family each invite a friend for the weekend without informing the others. Their ensuing rows cause the guests to leave, unnoticed by the bickering Blisses.

Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected