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Theatre review: Half-way out of the closet




NOeL COWARD used to maintain that his refusal to come clean about being gay sprang from a solicitous wish not to disillusion all those harmless middle-aged ladies in Goring-by-Sea who "harboured secret desires" for him. But there was also the tiny matter of the laws of England which, until 1967, made him a criminal. Then again, the conjunction in his work of a gay sensibility and ostensibly heterosexual relations had a potent across-the-board appeal. Can a man forced to lead a double life sacrifice too much in the interests of success? What emotional damage does such concealment inflict? The Coward centenary kicks off with a revival of the 1966 play A Song at Twilight, in which the Master finally brought himself to address these questions openly, if evasively.

The ironies surrounding this current production are rather more interesting than the production itself, which lacks confidence and definition. It is directed by the theatre critic Sheridan Morley, whose own pioneering biography of Coward, published in the late Sixties, had to keep mum about the love that had, by that time, in other quarters dared to speak its name. For all the criticisms A Song at Twilight levels at its hero, Coward was in basic agreement with his self-protective pessimism about uprooting prejudice. This hero, Sir Hugo Latymer, an eminent elderly author who has resorted to the camouflage of a long, presumably sexless marriage, is played well here by Corin Redgrave - a piquant choice because he has himself written a most sensitive and insightful book about the bisexual double life of his celebrated father, Sir Michael, one of whose male lovers was... Noel Coward.

Set in a private suite in a luxurious Swiss hotel, the play explores the crisis precipitated by the arrival of Carlotta, an actress still smarting from an affair in the distant past with Hugo. At the end of a sparring dinner a deux, she reveals that she has in her possession letters Hugo wrote to the male love of his life, whom he dumped in pursuit of success. The skirmishes between this reunited pair are, in this production, desperately uneven. Nyree Dawn Porter's faltering delivery and smilingly apologetic manner are at odds with the amused, tantalising aplomb and mettlesome truculence with which she should keep us and Hugo guessing. And she looks most extraordinary: the hair is Goldie Hawn, the wrinkles more Golda Meir - odd, given the repeated references in the text to Carlotta's amazing face-lifts.

Redgrave is in a different league (as is Kika Markham, excellent as a long-suffering German wife). Exuding all the petulant self-centredness and grandeur of someone who has spent his life playing Queen Bee in a silk dressing-gown, Redgrave also brilliantly hints at an underlying thrombosis of despair. The play behaves as though Coward's own body of work was free from the emotional emptiness it detects in Hugo. Not so. Rewind the clock by two decades or so and Hugo is revealed as, essentially, Garry Essendine, the spoilt Coward alter ego in Present Laughter, a play that significantly pays all the penalties of pretend heterosexuality.

A shorter version of this review appeared in the later editions of yesterday's paper