Present Laughter – May 2018

Experience: 6/10

By Noel Coward

Directed by Sean Foley

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Friday 11th May 2018

This was a disappointing start to the CFT season. Steve and I have enjoyed Sean Foley’s productions before, particularly A Mad World My Masters, while Rufus Hound’s performance as Sancho Panza in the RSC’s recent Don Quixote was simply superb. Sadly, in combination with the writing talent of Noel Coward, the whole became much less than the sum of its parts. Sean’s reliance on visual gags and physical clowning to get the ‘jokes’ across indicated that he either wasn’t aware of Coward’s wit or didn’t know how to direct it properly, and while Rufus can connect really well with an audience, he seemed to be struggling with some of the dialogue: the brilliant line “I’m so terribly terribly sorry, it’s a wrong number” generated nothing in the way of a response. (It’s usually the funniest line of the show, in our experience.)

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Fallen Angels – March 2014

Experience: 7/10

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.

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The Vortex – February 2013

Experience: 7/10

By Noel Coward

Directed by Stephen Unwin

Venue: Rose Theatre

Date: Monday 18th February 2013

This is another good production by the Rose. It was a controversial play when first put on stage, but after nearly ninety years the adultery and drug-taking seem more appropriate to a soap opera, so the tension has to come from the relationships, and that depends heavily on the characterisations. The choices made in this production seemed to emphasise the comedy at the expense of the darker side, so while I accept this interpretation, I felt it was weaker than other productions we’ve seen. Still, it was an enjoyable evening, and I do think they deserve better audiences.

The set was nicely done. At the centre of the stage was a large square platform made to look like a blank canvas, thrust forward a few feet into the pit area. There were large studs round the sides and streaks of blue paint on the edges around the central acting space. Two corner pieces of a large picture frame were positioned above and behind – the one on the right leaned a little drunkenly inwards – while a small piece of frame was positioned just behind the platform at ground level.

The opening scene was set in Florence’s drawing room at the Lancaster’s town house. The furniture was rampantly 1920s Art Deco, with a red lips sofa, chairs and enormous stool seat. A gramophone and some records stood on the floor front left, and there were double doors standing in splendid isolation centre back. Other furnishings included a female nude lamp stand, period telephone and lots of cigarettes.

The second act was a similar room in the Lancaster’s country house, and the difference was telling. An old-fashioned fireplace stood centre back with two small padded stools in front, there was a piano on the right and a table with two chairs on the left. The style was much older and suggested a more traditional household. The third act, in Florence’s bedroom, was more flamboyant, with lots of cushions and throws. The bed was in the centre, with a dressing table to the right and a window back left.

The simplicity of the set was refreshing, and certainly allowed for quick changes, although as they took intervals between each act that wasn’t really an issue. I notice that many of the Rose’s own productions tend to use picture frames in one way or another, which raises the question in my mind of whether they’re truly comfortable with such an open space yet? Having said that, I’ve liked the sets very much, and while I prefer period pieces such as this play to have more elaborate sets, this one did the job very well.

The performances were all fine too. David Dawson was nicely nervy as the son, Nicky, while the young lover Tom, played by Jack Hawkins, was suitably virile. The two ‘sensible’ women, Helen and Bunty, were well portrayed by Rebecca Johnson and Sophie Rundle respectively. Coward packed this play with minor characters whom we don’t really get to know, and although the weekend party in the country would have been a bit thin without them, the poor actors don’t get much to do.  Even Florence’s husband is hardly to be seen, although William Chubb got across this poor chap’s unhappy personality very well in his short time on stage.

I felt the main weakness was in the portrayal of Florence, Nicky’s mother. Kerry Fox was fine with the early scenes, showing us her character’s shallowness and need to be admired by all and sundry. In the final scene, however, I felt there was no discernible change. She’s meant to be so shaken by discovering Tom’s ‘unfaithfulness’ (and just how can a lover be unfaithful to an adulterous wife?) that she almost breaks through her delusions to a more truthful existence. This just didn’t happen from where I was sitting. We seemed to be going through an interminable closet scene from Hamlet, with the arguments going round in circles and not reaching any definite resolution.

Both Steve and I felt this was a valid interpretation of the scene, showing a vicious circle in which nothing would have changed, but it wasn’t as strong a version as we’ve seen before. We didn’t feel the son was near to killing himself, so the tension just wasn’t there; perhaps they’ll tighten this up during the rest of the run.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at

Private Lives – October 2012


By Noel Coward

Directed by Jonathan Kent

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Wednesday 10th October 2012

Another excellent performance from all the cast, with even more detail and even more laughs. No changes to report on the set or staging, although I forgot to mention last time about the Rites Of Spring dance which Amanda did specifically to annoy Elyot during Act 2. She did the modernistic choreography very well, and we learned in the post-show that Amanda’s flat was in the same street where Diaghilev’s company performed, so the choice of music and dance was both deliberate and effective.

Anna-Louise Plowman was much more kittenish tonight as Sybil, while Anthony Calf gave Victor a wider range of emotions. Toby Stephens was clearer tonight, and delivered some great lines with impeccable timing, and his scenes with Anna Chancellor showed a greater intimacy between the two main characters. The fight was still good fun too. The whole evening was just about as good as you can get with this play.

From the post-show we learned that they had deliberately avoided doing Noel Coward impersonations, which led to the dialogue sounding very modern and fresh. The director had insisted on running acts one and two together, which meant the technical crew had to work very hard to change the set in less than one minute! The cast had all contributed to the creation of each character, and had done a lot of work on the back stories too, including how they would have got to Deauville, how the cars would have been lifted off the ferry, etc. They weren’t expected to know their lines in advance – Jonathan Kent is apparently very good at creating a relaxed rehearsal room – but Anna Chancellor found that when the scene was right, the memorising would happen, not before. There were no understudies for this run – they just had to go on, which led to some stories from other productions where substitute actors had to read a part. Apparently Jonathan Kent had to go on for a missing actor during The Tempest at the Almeida, reading from the script. (You might think that would have taught him to cast understudies in the future, but obviously not.) The cast seemed to be having a good time with this production, and from the numbers staying behind tonight they were clearly doing a good job.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

Private Lives – September 2012


By Noel Coward

Directed by Jonathan Kent

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Friday 21st September 2012

The very first performance, and already they’ve got the characters established. We were a good audience as well, laughing early and plentifully throughout the evening, so we got them off to a good start. With such strong casting for all the parts the two leading roles didn’t dominate as much as usual, and the overall production was the better for it. The final argument between Sybil and Victor was very strong, and made Elyot and Amanda’s sneaky exit even funnier, partly because it echoed Victor and Sybil’s entrance at the end of the second act beautifully.

The sets were also beautiful. The stage itself had been raised up for this production, with Art Deco scalloped edges at the front and stylish black herringbone floorboards running front to back. About halfway back there were a number of small lights set into the floor which glowed like the lights of the town for the first act and were covered with a carpet for the rest of the play. The balconies themselves were splendid. A large picture frame spanned the width of the stage, with the two sets of French windows underneath. The balconies were also curved outwards a little, and the ironwork of the railings was all curves. There were tall gauzy curtains behind all this, and the effect was of sumptuous luxury. The costumes were a perfect match for all of this elegance.

The interval was taken after the second act, so the scene change between acts one and two had to be brisk. Victor and Sybil remained on their respective balconies when the lights went out, and the crew immediately brought on the furniture for the flat and started setting it up. There was a chaise on the left of the stage, a scooped sofa at the front and a single chair with side table on the right further back. A carpet was rolled out in the centre. Meanwhile, the balconies which were on the revolve had rotated round to the back, revealing the rest of the flat with its Art Deco Chinoiserie style wallpaper, contemporary pictures on the walls, concealed swing door to the kitchen (identifiable by the decorative plate hanging there), dining table and chairs and a grand piano on the left hand side. The main door was in the centre, and when it opened up the balcony railings became the landing railings – a nice touch. There were also two bedroom doors, one on each side of the stage, and plenty of other matching items, with masses of cushions everywhere.

I won’t go into the story: the performances, however, are another matter. I’ve already commented on the strong casting of the supporting roles; now it’s the turn of the leads. Toby Stephens was excellent as Elyot. He’s good at upper class roles anyway, but here he conveyed all the louche arrogance of this immature but charming character extremely well. The only minor point was that I couldn’t always hear him when he spoke softly – the Minerva is deceptively small, and even softer speech has to be given a boost – but I’m confident he’ll sort that out before we see it next time. Anna Chancellor matched him perfectly with Amanda’s waywardness and elegance. They managed to make the long second act bearable and even enjoyable, which is some feat. I’ve found before that spending such a long time in the company of two people who are so immature, who can be intermittently charming but are ultimately shallow, self-absorbed and uninteresting, usually palls about half-way through this act; not so tonight. The two actors have so much class that they gave these rather two-dimensional characters a hint of 3D, a sense that they might be real after all (god help us!) with real feelings and experiences. The resulting twists and turns in their relationship, as they unfolded in the second act, became compelling viewing, from the gushy happiness of the post-dinner glow through the inevitable bickering held less and less in check by ‘Solomon Isaacs’, to the final all out blazing row with full-on violence. I did feel a little bit of tedium creep in towards the end, but compared to my usual experience this was a huge improvement, and as the punch-up started soon afterwards I didn’t have anything to complain about.

Anthony Calf as Victor and Anna-Louise Plowman as Sybil did a fine job in these often underplayed roles. Their stiffness and conventionality are just as important to the play as Amanda and Elyot’s wild and carefree existence, and these two nailed their characters to perfection. The result was a great deal more humour, especially in the third act and particularly when Victor and Sybil finally erupted into their own flaming row, no doubt the first of many. I must also mention Maggie McCarthy as the maid. She wasn’t on stage for long, and along with Victor and Sybil I didn’t understand everything she said (it’s a long time since I did French at school) but she was wonderfully grumpy about everything, and again this was strong casting for such a small part. Maggie seems to have cornered the market in maids and nurses; this year already we’ve seen her in Uncle Vanya (Minerva again), The Doctor’s Dilemma (Lyttelton) and here – she’s been a busy woman.

With such a strong cast and excellent production I’m sure this will sell out, so we’re glad we’ve already booked for another performance, the last for this year and the last before the main theatre is revamped.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

Volcano – June 2012


By Noel Coward

Directed by Roy Marsden

Venue: Richmond Theatre

Date: Thursday 7th June 2012

Both Steve and I were strongly reminded of a Somerset Maugham play when the curtain rose on this set: the tropical island setting, the sound of the insects and the sense of the heat, although the couple in a sexual clinch on the ground was perhaps a tad unusual. The similarity was enhanced because Jenny Seagrove had been in The Letter, a Maugham play we saw back in 2007. In this current production she played Adele, the widow of a plantation owner on the fictional island of Samolo. She was attracted to Guy Littleton, a married man who’d been spending time on the island for business reasons, and to enjoy her company, but her past experiences have left her reluctant to become involved in such a liaison. His wife Melissa arrived on the island to check up on this possible affair, and her visit coincided with the arrival of one of Adele’s friends, Ellen, a fresh young thing whose own recent marriage was running into trouble. With Guy finding Ellen more amenable than Adele, Melissa had a tough time of it, and her jealousy led them all into danger when she refused to leave Adele’s house until Guy and Ellen returned from a trip up the erupting volcano on which Adele’s house is built.

After the eruption, Ellen’s husband Keith finally turned up, and we learned what a small world it is; Guy and Keith were at school together, with Keith hero-worshipping Guy above and beyond. The relationships eventually resolved themselves, and Adele was finally left to enjoy her solitude and run her plantation.

There were good performances all round and a lovely set, but somewhat ropey effects during the eruption itself which caused some sniggers from the audience. We enjoyed ourselves well enough, and although this isn’t Coward’s best work, it’s still worth reviving from time to time.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

Hayfever – October 2010


By: Noel Coward

Directed by: Stephen Unwin

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Thursday 7th October 2010

This was a bit disappointing. We were glad to be seeing Celia Imrie on stage, and hoped the production would be better than the one at Chichester last year, which was rather let down by Diana Rigg’s age. Celia Imrie is a better age for the lead role, but her portrayal came across as too schoolmarm-ish at times, and much too self-aware, which reduced my enjoyment somewhat. She did her best, and the rest of the production was perfectly fine with the two Bliss children being particularly good and Alexandra Galbraith giving us the sultriest vamp I’ve ever seen on stage.

The set was the usual eclectic jumble. The stairs were to the right, French windows centre back, door to the library on the left, and there was a pretty landscape visible through the windows. The effects of rain and sun were clearer at Chichester, with the sun coming out almost before the guests had finished fleeing the scene, and overall I find I preferred that production despite its flaws, but we still enjoyed ourselves well enough this afternoon. The writing is still as good, and there are plenty of lines that are almost guaranteed a laugh. I hope they do well for the rest of the run.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at

Hay Fever – April 2009


By Noel Coward

Directed by Nikolai Foster

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Friday 24th April 2009

Let’s be clear from the start. This was an excellent cast, with several of the young folk coming straight from the RSC’s recent productions and the rest being well experienced and talented. However, as great an actress as Diana Rigg is, she was definitely too old to be playing Judith Bliss. The humour of that part depends on an actress who is old enough to be worried about losing her looks but young enough to be physically active still, rather than looking like her zimmer frame is parked around the corner.

However, this was a good stab at a classic comedy and Chichester certainly gave them a luscious set to perform on, with plenty of sofas, chairs, tables, a staircase and large windows through which we could see the clouds gather and the rain pelt down, only to clear to bright sunshine when the guests have gone. The costumes were in keeping, and overall we managed to enjoy ourselves.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at

Private Lives – August 2008


By Noel Coward

Directed by Chris Jordan

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Saturday 23rd August 2008

This was a very enjoyable production of a classic play. The cast were well balanced, and apart from not being able to hear Elyot so well when his voice dropped, I found it a very clear performance. The sets were good, and the audience slightly better than last time.

Perhaps not surprisingly after a week at the RSC Summer School, which culminated with a visit from some of the actors doing The Taming Of The Shrew, I saw for the first time connections between this play and Shakespeare’s. I could see Petruchio and Kate in Elyot and Amanda, while Bianca and Lucentio are reflected by Sybil and Victor. This idea was prompted by Elyot asking Sybil if she’s trying to control him, if she’s planning to manage their lives together while appearing to be all sweetness and light. It’s unusual for me to link Shakespeare and Coward in this way, but not unprofitable. The insight didn’t add to my enjoyment of the performance, but I did enjoy the extra views along the way.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

Brief Encounter – February 2008


By Noel Coward, adapted by Emma Rice

Directed by Emma Rice

Company: Kneehigh

Venue: The Cinema, Haymarket

Date: Wednesday 13th February 2008

This was definitely the best combination of cinema and theatre I’ve ever seen. The way the two media were blended together created a tremendous experience, and the seats were a lot comfier too. And there were cucumber sandwiches in the intermission!

The story of Brief Encounter is comingled with several Noel Coward songs and poems, performed by the staff at the railway station, a talented bunch who can turn their hands to most things. As well as sporting a magnificent rear end and selling delicious looking cakes, the chief tea lady Tamzin Griffin plays the cello and sings. Her helper, Amanda Lawrence, also sings and dances, and there are contributions by the others as well.

First, the set. The entire width of the stage was used, with plush curtains coming across to screen off the sides occasionally. At other times we could see the scaffolding on each side, with the stairs leading up to the gantry at the back. There was an oven door set into the back wall, the tea shop counter on the left, and some tables and chairs to the right. The back wall was used as a screen, while another screen, made of strips, came down near the front on several occasions, and allowed characters to slip on and off screen – very effective. It was mainly used to show Laura rejoining her husband. The first time, she was obviously reluctant to leave her lover, but later, there was a sense of finality, as she chooses her husband over Alec. When needed, the same chairs and lamp were brought on for a scene with her husband on the stage. Their children were large puppet dolls.

The performance started with the ushers and usherettes lining up on each side of the stage, and serenading us with some lovely harmonies. Then the two lovebirds, who were sitting in the middle of the front row, began having an argument. She got up and walked off, and from there we got all sorts of entertainment, some on stage, some in the auditorium, some filmed, some song and dance. But they kept the focus and the momentum going brilliantly throughout.

They made a lot more of the minor characters, but eventually the love story gets underway, and we’re treated to a couple of outstanding performances by Naomi Frederick and Tristan Sturrock as the two lovers. They give us all the necessary emotional restraint and upper class accents, while at the same time making the passion underneath it all believable. This passion is often represented by having a film of waves crashing on the shore projected on the screen at the back, and playing some sweeping classical music as the characters swoon briefly in their chairs in the tea room. On one occasion this segues nicely into a scene with Laura’s husband, where he asks her to turn the music down.

The interval was an intermission, and there were some lovely adverts shown, all done in the style of the day, and finishing with the cheesy grins which are held for a second or two longer than is natural. Then the cucumber sandwiches arrived, and we both had one – lovely.

In the second half, we get the scene where the lovers’ final parting is ruined by a friend of Laura arriving and taking over the conversation. She’s played here by Amanda Lawrence, who also plays Beryl in the tea-room. She’s wearing an outrageously long feather on her hat – nearly pokes Alec’s eye out – and she has a cheeky wee dog that steals the show. It’s another puppet, or perhaps a mop, but with a massive personality. After the curtain calls, the final piece of music accompanying our exit is Joe Jackson’s Fools in Love – very appropriate.

This is Kneehigh as I like them best – imaginative, inventive, and telling a story well, despite all the apparent distractions. We left the theatre, sorry cinema, or was it a theatre…? Anyway, we left feeling very happy, especially as there’d been a few sniffles to accompany the many laughs.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at