Frankly, it doesn’t take much to convince me to watch Noel Coward, but if I’d known in advance I was getting in two saucy plays in less than an hour, I would have beaten down the door of the Red Lion instead of waiting as long as I did to see it. I enjoy Coward’s writing quite a lot, but the chance to see some works that might have set off the censors really caught my attention. I mean, Coward has a reputation for raking up trouble, for dropping hints of (some of) his characters’ bisexuality and treating the “state of matrimony” as more of a “state of mind” – but in his mainstage shows, you barely get a hint of actual scandal. I’m pleased to say this sense of restraint is utterly discarded, like a filmy negligee,
The first play, “We Were Dancing,” had me laughing from about two minutes in, when Louise (Lianne Harvey) attempts to introduce the man she’s fallen madly in love with and realizes she doesn’t actually know his name. I thought it was hysterical that she could actually think she was in love, but her husband (John MacCormick)’s attempts to negotiate this field of landmines was even more funny. I felt we were supposed to double Louise’s ability to actually understand her emotions – the new beau, Karl Sandys (James Sindall) also claims it’s love – and in some ways the ending is both a bit of a relief and a reassurance to the audience that we were right to have doubts. The actors played it all very straight, which made it even merrier. Have a nice stiff drink beforehand so you can join in the fun.
Next up was “The Better Half,” which, per the program notes, was written for the London Grand Guignol theater. Although this is, once again, a play that makes fun of the institution of marriage, it’s actually quite valid in Grand Guignol due to its focus on manipulation and violence. However, the possibly depressing (or murderous) tack this could take is overwhelmed by Alice (Tracey Pickup)’s focus on the self-congratulatory, prideful smugness of her husband (Stephen Fawkes) – don’t we all know people like this, people who are so obsessed with being accepting and understanding that you just ache for them to get mad about anything, once? I certainly sympathized with Alice – although she was frighteningly sanguine about her husband’s teetering on the border of infidelity – and found the ending extremely satisfying. If only I could have jumped in and given the characters a little slap!
Adding to the general atmosphere was some very nice work at the piano from Mr Tom Self and a pair of songs from Mr Coward’s oeuvre – poignant and lovely to hear. So much entertainment and all over in about sixty minutes – just in time to refresh your drink. I’m sure Noel would have approved.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, August 8, 2015. It continues through August 29th.)