Volcano, Vaudeville Theatre, London


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The Independent Culture

The eponymous volcano rumbles ominously in the distance and the skies darken. It’s the Pathetic Fallacy in full throttle as extramarital desire correspondingly seethes and churns amongst the cocktail-swiggers gathered on the verandah of Adela, a widowed forty-something plantation owner.

It sounds like steamy Tennessee Williams territory but in fact this is a play by Noel Coward, rejected by producers and prospective stars when it was offered to them in 1956. Now, in this belated West End premiere, somewhat staidly directed by Roy Marsden, it emerges as a piece that is more likely to intrigue Coward enthusiasts than to win him new fans.

The play was written during the Master’s controversial tax-exile in Jamaica during the days of waning colonial rule and it derives from his observation of the antics of his fellow- expats, especially Ian Fleming on whom he loosely based the lothario Guy Littleton.

When it comes to sex, we are told, Guy is “as subtle as a fire engine”. The trouble is – and even an actor as attractive as Jason Durr cannot surmount it – Coward has not lent a single redeeming feature to this upper-crust sleazeball who vainly tries to bed the platonically besotted Adela (a wan, stoic Jenny Seagrove) and then, undeterred by the arrival of his spouse, seduces a young married woman on the way back from a fateful nocturnal trip to the volcanic crater.

It’s a curious piece that comes alive in flashes. If Coward had gone into rehearsal with it, his blue pencil would doubtless have thinned the more novelettish passages in the dialogue, where Adela agonises at length over whether she is being honest with herself in her stand of virtuous dignity and devoted widowhood against Guy’s heavybreathing blandishments.

And the piece, which in the second half keeps teetering on the brink of a disaster spoof, is acute about how concentration on worthless men is destructive of intimacy between women. The sparring between Adela and Dawn Steele’s witty, glintingly malignant Melissa (Guy’s wife) has a lovely taut obliquity, reminding you of the affinities between Coward and Pinter.

Apart from one mention of a black funeral down by the harbour (cue tinny faraway recorded music), this feels an artificially all-white affair. Though Adela gropes at one point for the name of Madame Ranevskaya, this is no Cherry Orchard of the colonies. But there is one determined attempt to kick the closet door ajar.

To 29 September (0844 482 9675)