'Try to look as if nothing has happened, and when you analyse it, nothing much has.' Those words spoken by Patricia Hodge's character in Trevor Nunn's production of Noël Coward's Relative Values are factually accurate.
After the manner of comedy, we end more or less where we began, the transitory chaos dispersed and order restored. But when ‘nothing’ is as much fun as this, who could object?
Coward's Relative Values opens in a country house reeling from the news that its heir has gone and got himself engaged to a Hollywood actress. The household is pretending to be distracted by the 'full-blooded crisis' brewing about the church fete, but all minds are on the imminent arrival of film star Miranda Frayle, and as we gradually find out, some have more reason to dread her arrival than others.
The play has two pivotal roles and in this production at the Theatre Royal in Bath we're treated to performances from two of our greatest comic actresses. Patricia Hodge (best known as the mother in BBC sit-com Miranda) plays the matriarch of the house, Felicity, Countess of Marshwood, while Caroline Quentin plays the reliable housekeeper and lady's maid, Moxie.
Hodge speaks Coward's lines as if to the manner (and manor) born and Quentin's fiery maid gets some of the evening's biggest laughs. But this is an ensemble piece with Rory Bremner's butler Crestwell – who pronounces ‘change’ as if it’s a foreign word – and Steven Pacey as Felicity's nephew, Peter, providing the other half of a strong comic quartet. And yet, there’s more to Coward’s text than Downton Abbey with jokes, he also has the British class system – and our affection for it – in his sights.
It’s the arrival of Miranda Frayle (played by Katherine Kingsley) that really disturbs the country house equilibrium. She's an ersatz-Marilyn (Nunn even has her in a similar dress to Monroe’s famous Seven Year Itch frock) with terrible embroidery, gauche manners and an undisguised horror at having to live with her future mother-in-law. Kingsley does a great job acting the consummate play-actor, who’s matched in her theatricality only by her American ex-flame, Don Lucas (Ben Mansfield), who turns up unannounced during dinner.
It’s perhaps not one of Coward’s best-known works for a reason – some of the dialogue is flabby and the resolution comes about a touch too suddenly. But there’s plenty to enjoy in this beautifully designed, deftly directed comedy of manors.