Noël Coward is mad about the boy
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Forty years after his death, we still can’t get enough of Noël Coward. Every year seems to bring another biography or the discovery of a forgotten work. And of course Coward’s own plays, once derided as products of a bygone era, are now in almost continual production throughout the world. Now we have James Martin Charlton’s play about Coward the vile seducer.
Apart from its final scene, which leaves the question, “So what?”, hanging in the air, it’s not a bad play. Although only one or two of his famous aphorisms are used, Coward’s voice can be heard clearly throughout. Unfortunately the play is neither one thing nor the other. I can’t imagine the Noël Coward Society, whose vice president, Stephen Fry, helped secure funding for this production, will be storming the box office. There’s also nothing here for sensation-seekers. To have not one, but three, sex scenes curtailed by fading lights is coy in the extreme.
In the 1930s, at the height of his fame, The Master (as Coward came to be known) sets about the seduction of naïve, untalented, Bolshy and, worst of all, heterosexual actor Leonard Marlowe. He succeeds, but with devastating results. Meanwhile Cole Lesley, Coward’s devoted manservant, observes dispassionately.
For those in the know, the script is based on Coward’s relationship with American actor William Traylor, which ended badly, so badly that it wasn’t even mentioned in Lesley’s biography, The Life of Noël Coward. But it happened in the 1950s, when Coward was old and his career was on the skids. This is the scenario that might have made for strong drama. By moving the action back twenty years, when everyone’s in the flush of youth, Charlton dulls the impact. This is just another two young guys negotiating the rules of engagement for sex. Despite spurious references to Hitler et al, we gain little.
The play is the work of a new company, two of whose members have unwisely pushed themselves into leading rôles. Jake Urry has a rough approximation of Coward’s voice, but posing stands in for acting. Peter Stone is simply wrong for the part of an uneducated working man of the 1930s. He looks uncomfortable on stage. And there’s little chemistry between Urry and Josh Taylor as Leonard. I wondered what they saw in each other.
A scene change clumsy even by Fringe Theatre standards (while Coward and Lesley are discussing Leonard’s awful fate, he is in fact bringing on new props) rather puts the tin lid on this cheap production. Re-writing, re-casting and re-staging are called for.
GT gives this 2/5
Coward runs at the White Bear Theatre until November 10th. To book tickets visit White Bear Theatre.
Words: David McGillivray