By Noel Coward
Directed by Roy Marsden
Presented by Bill Kenwright
Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
Date: Thursday 13th March 2014
I have no recollection of seeing this play before, but both Steve and our records show that I did, back in 1982. That production clearly didn’t make much of an impression; this one did a lot better. The plot soon reminded me of The Merry Wives Of Windsor – I don’t know if that was Coward’s intention, but he’s written a very funny mirror-image version of that play in a similar vein to Rattigan’s Less Than Kind. (Funnily enough, the recent production we saw of that play also starred Sarah Crowe.) There are two postcards with identical content and two wives whose marriages have become rather dull over time. When a flame from their pre-marriage past announces his intention to visit, their libidos kick in and anything can happen. Unlike the Merry Wives, these two have every intention of being ‘fallen angels’, but with complications galore, neither gets the chance – at least, not before the curtain falls.
The set was remarkably similar to that for The Reluctant Debutante (Feb 2011). The only location was a large drawing room decorated in shades of white and cream. There was a baby grand back right, a dining table to the left of the raised back area and a sofa and chair on the lower area at the front. The fireplace was on the right flanked by tall windows, there were central double doors at the back with a view of the corridor, and a door front left. For the second act the sofa had been bundled over to face the fireplace and the dining table brought down to the lower level so we could see what went on while a huge bouquet of flowers adorned the baby grand. The third act restored things to ‘normal’.
The story was relatively simple. On receiving their postcards from Maurice, the wives have to decide what to do. Their husbands are away in Sussex playing golf, and while Jane (Sarah Crowe) favours running away to France, or Aberdeen, anywhere that gets them out of town while Maurice is visiting, Julia (Jenny Seagrove) asserts that that would be cowardly, and is most miffed when Jane not only sees through her pathetic attempt at subterfuge but then insists on staying with her friend to help her cope. Both women want to revive their romantic (i.e. sexual) liaison with Maurice, and despite their ‘better selves’ prompting them to stay loyal to their husbands, their inner demons prod them into ludicrous behaviour to regain their past lover.
For the second act they were dressed for dinner in long black gowns, and had refrained from eating so that when Maurice arrived he would just happen to find them about to sit down together. As a result they were starving, so when the first cocktail hit their systems, they were squiffy in no time. That was followed by champagne. Lots of champagne, so they went from squiffy to giggly to truculent to completely uncoordinated in a very short space of time.
There were a lot of laughs in this section, mostly for the comic business. Their descent into drunken incompetence was very well choreographed, and the two ladies slipped, fell and slid all over the place. At one point they managed to get themselves into a very compromising clinch just as the servant, Saunders, came in with the steak. Earlier, they had argued over who would answer the phone, and tossed for it; it’s the first time I’ve seen a fork used for that purpose, but it did the job. With Maurice nowhere to be seen, and the women getting more and more inebriated, the inevitable happened and they had a row. Julia told Jane to leave, which she eventually did, wearing only one shoe and carrying a pineapple; it was a splendid exit.
It was no surprise at the start of the third act that Julia was hung over. Fortunately Saunders, an extremely talkative female version of Jeeves, had the perfect hangover cure and Julia was soon feeling better. At least she was until Jane’s husband Willy arrived back earlier than expected, looking for his wife. Julia ratted out her ‘friend’ as quick as you like – no need for waterboarding this time – and the two of them disappeared off to find the missing Jane. Shortly afterwards Fred, Julia’s husband, turned up, and naturally so did Jane, who repaid the as yet unknown favour by grassing up her ‘best chum’ Julia. Each woman assumed the other had gone off with Maurice, and out of jealousy told each other’s husbands about the long-ago affairs they had had with him.
Matters came to a head when Julia and Willy returned to find Jane and Fred in a compromising position, followed almost immediately by the arrival of none other than Maurice! He greeted each woman with charm and a glint in his eye, but when he was introduced to the husbands, and realised the situation between the husbands and wives, he showed true gallantry by cooking up a relatively credible excuse for the whole affair: the wives had roped him in to make their husbands jealous in order to spice up their relationships. It took the men some time to grasp what he meant, and although the women could scarcely contain their excitement whenever Maurice was in close proximity to them, they brazened it out and the husbands, though puzzled, seemed content.
When Maurice announced that he had taken the flat on the floor between Jane and Julia’s apartments for a whole year, the ladies nearly fainted with orgasmic delight, and they left with their ‘platonic’ friend Maurice to help him pick out curtains for his new home. Left alone, the husbands shared their confusion over the whole thing, and then the doubts began to grow, especially as they could hear music and laughter from upstairs. The play ended with the two of them looking up with growing concern for what their wives might be up to.
The cast did a fine job with this piece. Sarah Crowe in particular provided much of the humour with her perfect timing and range of expressions. Jenny Seagrove might not have been my first choice for the other wife’s role, but she did a good job nevertheless, while Gillian McCafferty was splendid as the verbose Saunders. No complaints about any of the men either, although they had less to do, and I definitely won’t forget this production as easily as the last one.
© 2014 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me