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Experiencing the downward slope of his career, lauded playwright Noël Coward left England for Jamaica in his later years, and it was this newfound lifestyle that formed the basis of Volcano. Written in 1956, this previously undiscovered play is currently receiving its West End premiere at the Vaudeville Theatre. The production is a limited run of seven weeks, and stars stage veteran Jenny Seagrove, alongside Jason Durr and Dawn Steele.
Volcano is set on the fictional Pacific island of Samolo, where widow Adela Shelley resides near her banana plantations. Visiting Guy Littleton has charmed her for some time, despite Adela’s obvious reluctance to accept him as a lover. However, dramatic events – as well as the nearby volcano – are due to erupt following the arrival of Guy’s wife, Melissa.
As the play unfolds, it becomes clear that Guy is a lothario of sorts, and it takes very little for anyone – including other guests at Adela’s home – to become enamoured with him. Surprisingly, Melissa is well aware of her husband’s indiscretions, and acts rather blasé towards the situation, spouting endless catty remarks at her fellow females.
However, greater surprises are to come. It is not difficult to understand why Volcano remained unperformed for so many decades; the sexual themes – including somewhat overt references to homosexual relations – were unexpected of the era and of Noel Coward himself. These all appear rather tame, though, when watching the play nowadays.
Volcano begins slowly, with dry dialogue between Adela and Guy that ultimately only serves to set the scene. Jenny Seagrove is perfectly cast as Adela, immediately evoking the emotive yet resilient attitude of the character. Jason Durr as Guy, on the other hand, certainly has the appearance of a gentlemanly womaniser, but fails to capture his charming façade entirely.
The play livens up with the arrival of friend Grizelda Craigie – played by Finty Williams – alongside her husband, who manages to entertain endlessly with her lovable and loud observations. This is followed shortly by Melissa’s dreaded entrance, in which she barely attempts to prevent awkwardness. Dawn Steele does the character justice, and continues to bring humour to the forefront.
The ensemble cast keeps the dynamics among characters fresh and interesting. Despite this, there is little that has not already been discussed in the last quarter of the play, and it dies quickly after climactic scenes. It unfortunately leaves an unsatisfying taste at the end, with the feeling that particular plot threads could have been exploited more.
Naturally, these drawbacks are purely a result of Noël Coward’s writing, and perhaps reflect the playwright’s limitations given the themes of Volcano. Nonetheless, this first major production – by Bill Kenwright and Thelma Holt – utilises the simplistic set efficiently, and has several impressive effects. While receiving a limited run accurately reflects the longevity of Volcano in the West End, it provides an above-all amusing evening at the theatre.
Until 29 September, Vaudeville Theatre, London.
Ticket information here.
Words: Matthew Pitt