With family, it’s all relative. In Noel Coward’s comedy Relative Values, we see a family dynamic entrenched in historic values disturbed by a shift in society.
Sam Hoare as Nigel, the Earl of Marshwood, brings home Miranda Frayle, a young Hollywood actress whom he intends to marry, much to his mother’s chagrin. Leigh Zimmerman is suitably fabulous and flighty as his unwelcome starlet. Nigel’s mother Felicity, Patricia Hodge’s Countess of Marshwood, is ineffably sharp and at first only mildly perturbed by the turn of events – her stiff upper lip barely twitches.
It’s only when her loyal maid of 19 years, Moxie, is mysteriously determined that the addition of Frayle to the Marshwood Manor will cause her to terminate her employment irrevocably that we see the ascension of the plot. Caroline Quentin reminds us why she is so lovable with her utterly perfect comic timing and charm in this role.
Rather than altering the situation, the Countess of Marshwood concocts a cleverly convoluted plan to instead shift the perspective with the aid of her noble butler, the very wordy Crestwell. It surprised me to learn that this is Rory Bremner’s West End debut as he is brilliant, a complete natural.
Hodge’s clipped tones perfectly embody the searing asides as the matriarch refusing to be toppled. Her partner in crime is her nephew the Honourable Peter Ingleton who brings a gay lightness to the playful character. Steven Pacey as Peter is very amusing in his efforts to ensnare an unsuspecting Don Lucas, the very attractive yet dim actor in what turns out to be something of a love square. Peter’s involvement, along with those of the unsuspecting neighbours Lady Cynthia Hayling and Sir John Hayling really fuel the fire.
The stellar cast launches its opening night at the Harold Pinter Theatre, and takes its audience back to 1951. With original video clips of a young Queen Elizabeth and Churchill’s post-war public addresses, one truly does feel transported. These clips mentioning rations and other factors that affected everyone, regardless of financial and social position, prove a great backdrop for this story about the British class system.
Coward also uses the opportunity to take a jab at the Americans, the two main villains and perfectly fitting the stereotype of being incredibly stupid. Having said that, Hoare’s pouting, petulant son doesn’t fare a much better fate with his resolute conflict-avoidance tactics to ensure he is always in mummy’s good books, at whatever cost. Through the Countess of Marshwood Coward even pokes fun at what lies beneath the upper class: joyless friendships born from familial connections.
Under Trevor Nunn’s direction it’s no surprise that the play is so very well performed; however, in true Coward form it’s hardly succinct. One of Coward’s lesser known and arguably less popular plays dances with what is now generally thought of as a taboo: advocacy of a social hierarchy.
It’s easy to see why Relative Values is lesser known and a little unpopular: it alienates most people except the niche it is in favour of preserving. Despite this archaic idea, it’s impossible to deny that the true heroes of the play are in fact the hired help.
Having spent so long working together and serving the Marshwoods, they are clearly family themselves and wholly entertaining with it.
Relative Values is running until 21 June at the Harold Pinter Theatre. For tickets and more information go to the ATG Tickets website.