An all-day Noel Coward? We associate theatrical marathons with heavy stuff such as ancient Greek tetralogies and Shakespeare history cycles, not with the stinging flippancy and lightness of touch of the Master’s output. We’re not normally in the habit of packing our flasks and girding our loins for an epic session with him.
But now Jermyn Street Theatre is offering us the chance to see all of the nine short plays that comprise Tonight at 8.30. Coward wrote this piece in 1935 as a vehicle for himself and Gertrude Lawrence after their huge success together in Private Lives. They had grown bored with playing the same characters every night, and this clutch of playlets – performed as three triple bills – gave them the opportunity to act, sing and dance in a variety of guises and to showcase Coward’s surprising versatility as a writer.
Artistic director Tom Littler has pulled off an extraordinary feat at the tiny Jermyn, in mounting the first complete revival in the West End since 1936 (English Touring Theatre did a version a few years ago). His production shrewdly takes the ensemble approach and distributes the main roles among the company of nine (who play 73 parts).
One of the chief pleasures of watching the show is the increasing familiarity you feel with the highly skilled cast (which includes Sara Crowe, Nick Waring and Miranda Foster) as they continually resurface, pointing up the contrasts and intriguing connections between their disparate characters.
The pieces range from the backstage bickering of a down-at-heel vaudeville double-act in Red Peppers, to the very funny comedy of English bad manners, Hands Across the Sea, and Still Life, which was developed into the classic film Brief Encounter.
You’re jolted by plays that seem more experimental, in form and content, than Coward is ordinarily given credit for. Shadow Play is a strange musical dream in which an unhappy Mayfair wife ask for a divorce from her husband, takes too many sleeping pills and slips back into a hallucination recalling the joyous days of courtship. In its flashbacks and cross-cuts, its structure feels boldly cinematic and it gives song (as in the lovely “You Were There”) the haunting ache of remembered ecstasy. The Astonished Heart offers a devastating post-mortem on the suicide of a celebrated psychiatrist whose patient, liberal wife cannot save him from toppling into a disastrous obsession with his mistress whom she bullied at school. Parts of this are as lacerating as Strindberg.
You don’t have to see the lot. The plays have been arranged in three triple bills, titled Bedroom Farces, Nuclear Families and Secret Hearts. These have been designed to stand alone. My tip, though, would be to see the whole caboodle either in three instalments or as an entire cycle, performed on Saturdays and Sundays. That way you will appreciate better how the odd dud is offset by a gem.
The dancing and singing are not this production’s strongest suit, and the fantasia-like fluidity of Shadow Play therefore feels disappointingly clunky. Family Album, a musical skit on bogus Victorian piety, is a laborious jest, even when engagingly performed.
It would be a shame to miss the full beauty of the versatility on offer by only seeing one batch. Miranda Foster and Nick Waring excel, whether as skint bohemians on the Riviera, plotting to pay off their gambling debts through a faked robbery, or as the image of middle-class decency and bravely repressed passion in that railway refreshment room in Still Life.
Sara Crowe is inimitably funny playing, among other things, one of a couple of dull, shyly eager guests from the colonies who turn up and are blithely ignored by their smart London hosts. She’s genuinely touching here, just as she is blissfully scatty and self-centred as the actress who chaotically chairs the charity committee in Star Chamber, an affectionate, rather strenuously amusing joke about theatrical egos. It hasn’t been seen since 1936 and has been reinstated (at the expense of Fumed Oak).
If you come away unconvinced that Tonight at 8.30 will re-enter the repertoire (some of the material is not up to scratch), you are also filled with admiration for the energy and chutzpah of everyone involved in this madly adventurous enterprise. As well as playing several parts spot-on, the musical director, Stefan Bednarczyk, provides witty comments during the scene changes and plays beautifully arranged medleys of Coward tunes on the piano. After their valiant efforts throughout, there is a well-deserved bow for the crew at the final curtain call. In such a small space, this is an extraordinary feat of teamwork.
Tonight at 8.30 runs until 20 May (jermynstreettheatre.co.uk)
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