Tonight At 8:30 (part 1) – July 2006

Experience: 1/10

By Noel Coward

Directed by Lucy Bailey

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Thursday 27th July 2006

What a disappointment. I had hoped for better from Noel Coward, but sadly, this show proves that he could also write stinkers. These one act plays may have been popular in their day, although I suspect the popularity was Noel and Gertie’s rather than the writing, but they creak like rotting hulks now, with very few good points to commend them. The actors did their best, but they couldn’t resurrect the long-dead. Such is life.

Red Peppers was the opener. If I haven’t seen this actual playlet, I’ve certainly seen at least one like it – the faded ‘stars’ of music hall doing their inherited act round the country’s theatres, bitching about everyone else, falling out between themselves, then uniting against a common enemy – the musical director. Nothing new, very little humour worth mentioning, and peculiarly staged. The play’s stage was at the back, and we saw the performance from behind, which was fine. But at the end, when they’re back on stage again, they have to compete not only with a musical director going like the clappers, but also with Susan Wooldridge’s character struggling to get out of the hamper she’s fallen into in the dressing room, followed by the stage hand who lands in there after getting her out – he ends up playing the ukulele. What were we supposed to be watching? It completely undercut the final scene, and the whole thing fizzled out in a very disappointing way.

On top of this, the leading lady, Josefina Gabrielle, had some difficulties with her accent and her delivery. She seems to have spent a lot of her career doing musicals, presumably miked up. This may explain why her delivery lacked the clarity of the other actors’. While I expect to lose a few lines in a multi-directional auditorium, I found her very difficult to hear at all, throughout the plays.

The Astonished Heart filled a long hour before the second interval. Had I known it would be so long I would have ‘refreshed’ myself during the first! This was pretty basic stuff – a husband being unfaithful to his wife, can’t handle rejection by his lover, throws himself out of a window (and as a doctor you would have thought he’d have other methods available which would have spared us so much suffering), and dies after an offstage meeting with the ex-lover. Not the stuff of legend.

The accents were so terribly, terribly cut-glass that it was almost a parody. Mostly of the play consisted of long flashbacks in which the wife was terribly noble, the husband was terribly passionate, and the lover kept threatening to leave him and then hung around so he could grab her for the umpteenth time and cry “Don’t leave me”. I can only assume Noel and Gertie did something amazing with this piece – this cast, bless ‘em, just couldn’t make it enjoyable.

Finally, Family Album at least gave us a few laughs. After their father’s funeral, the family gather to drink sherry and reminisce. Unfortunately, this piece included various songs, which meant having an incongruous piano player on stage at all times, completely ignored by the rest of the cast. Fortunately, we finally got to see less of Josefina and much more of Susan Wooldridge, who is an excellent actress, especially at comedy. Her revelations of their father’s last  will leaving everything to his numerous lovers, a will which was ash before his body was cold, was a lovely scene. It was matched by the inability of the extremely old and deaf butler to hear any enquiries about his witnessing of said will. Beautifully done.

The gathering of the supposedly disinterested family members round the trunk that contains goodness knows what was also well done, but overall this piece, and the whole evening, would have benefited from serious pruning, and in one case from a much better performance. I have very low expectations for part two, which may mean I enjoy it a lot more. Wait and see.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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