Coward and How to Play Him

Two of the biggest hits in London theatres today are works by Noel Coward. At the Mermaid a compilation of many of his songs, sketches and writings for an evening’s entertainment titled COWARDY CUSTARD, whilst the Queens Theatre in the West End houses his 42 year old comedy, PRIVATE LIVES.

Back in the 40’s and early 50’s a generation of theatregoers were able to enjoy many intimate revues starring such talented people as the Hermiones (Gingold & Baddeley), Henry Kendall, Betty Marsden, Max Adrian, Moira Fraser, Ian Carmichael, Joan Sims, Dora Bryan and Joan Heal. With the advent of BEYOND THE FRINGE, the whole style of humour in revue changed overnight. All of these artists knew their craft well. They could wring humour out of a mere sentence by the tone of their voice, or the expression on their face. Which brings me first to COWARDY CUSTARD and what I think is wrong with it.

Coward’s material in the main is still very funny but the handling of his works in this show is unworthy of him. I have enjoyed Una Stubbs comedy playing in several TV shows, and like Elaine Delmar on records. Richard Waring is a fine stage actor, as is John Moffatt. But none of these people seem able to adapt themselves to revue playing. The direction is pretty poor and the cast enters and leaves the stage so frequently one gets dizzy watching them.

The one shining light in this production is Patricia Routledge. It has been said of some performers that they could give a reading of the telephone directory and it would hold an audience. In Miss Routledge’s case, she could read the same book and manage to make it funny. She is indeed a very funny lady, and rightly stops the show with the old Beatrice Lillie song ‘I went to a marvellous party’ – but for myself ‘one performer does NOT make a show.’

On the other hand if you enjoy sophisticated comedy and would like to see it brilliantly performed, I urge you to join the queue at the box office to see PRIVATE LIVES at the Queens Theatre. This slim tale of a divorced couple who have both remarried and find themselves in adjoining suites on their second honeymoons with their respective new partners is played for all it’s worth by four fine players who understand the art of playing Coward.

Robert Stephens as the twice married man is ably supported by Polly Adams and James Villiers as the new partners. Which brings me finally to the star performance of Maggie Smith. She began her career in intimate revue and it certainly shows in her portrayal of Amanda. Watch what she does with a line like “who’s yacht is that?” and you’ll see what I mean. On two occasions she lunges forward for a cigarette, and lighting it, puffs furiously in a Bette Davis take-off. Her costume in the third act, particularly that hat, is alone worth the price of admission. A superbly funny performance in a gem of a comedy.

Thirties Fans Only

19720914-09Cowardy Custard Directed by Wendy Toye, with Patricia Routledge, Elaine Delmar, Derek Waring, John Moffatt. At the Mermaid Theatre.

I went to a marvellous party, and although I paid for my seat, I felt rather like a gate crasher. Tottering dowagers with ga-ga escorts, exquisite young men in pin-stripe suits and immaculate haircuts, aged flappers and drunken ‘cads’, and for God’s sake, I swear I saw Somerset Maugham! The audience were the sort of people you thought had vanished from the face of the earth — but there they were, like an animated Scarfe cartoon.

We settled down, chattered madly through the overture (the overture?!) then sighed and reminisced through a lovely medley of Coward favourites which introduced us to the cast. It was here that doubt began to set in. While the well-known favourites – I’ll See You Again, Play Orchestra Play, You Were There, obviously stood the test of time, there were far too many that didn’t, and it wasn’t until almost definitive versions of I’ve been to a Marvellous Party by Patricia Routledge and The Stately Homes Of England by 4 of the men, that the evening began to show any sign of promise. The first half ended with Why Must the Show Go On? and it was difficult not to ask ‘Why indeed?’.

The London sequence which opened Part 2 with the cast dressed like Pearly Queens on acid, was an extended disaster, and Patricia Routledge almost wiped out her earlier triumph in a dire, sentimental and patronising monologue I’ve Just Come Out From England with which Mr. Coward presumably bored the troops to death during his many overseas tours of the last war.

Elaine Delmar belted her songs loud and clear, but was clearly wrong for Coward’s deceptively fragile melodies, and Una Stubbs managed to be coyer than even her Cliff Richard Show appearances would lead you to believe.

All told, one for those of you only heavily into 30s nostalgia.