Staging famous plays from well-known playwrights can often be a double edged sword for smaller theatres. It can attract a bigger crowd who will often attend works that they have heard of and so may know something about. But the standards to achieve are often higher and performers can easily be compared to past counterparts. A Naughty Night with Noel Coward strikes a balance – lesser known, smaller plays yet by a famous playwright, Noel Coward. Two one-act plays made up this particular showcase – We Were Dancing and The Better Half.
We Were Dancing tells of a couple that fall madly in love after a brief moment shared dancing together, so much so that Louise Charteris (Lianne Harvey) is altogether prepared to leave her faithful husband Hubert (John MacCormick) for the suave Karl Sandys (James Sindall). Fortunately Hubert’s sister Clara (Beth Eyre) is on hand to keep everyone’s feet on the ground. The dialogue reminds me of Noel Coward straightaway – fast-paced, witty dialogue punctuated with one line exchanges between all characters in quick succession. There is also a typically middle class vibe to the whole thing, set in a country club with each character showing a modicum of restraint despite the events that unfold throughout the evening.
All the actors are convincing here, but none are particularly exceptional. Sindall has the best sense of Coward’s material – he speaks of passion in the most matter-of-fact terms and his whirlwind romance with Harvey is made funnier by how they have to gloss over not knowing each other’s names. All characters feel at ease with the script and have no problems in keeping on top of the snappy exchanges. Both Harvey and MacCormick have moments where their restrained emotional exterior cracks to reveal some true passion underneath. Yet all could have played with timing a little better – everything felt quite over-rehearsed and too in time. Some awkward pauses could have broken the flow slightly and given extra moments for the audience to appreciate the material.
A musical interlude by Tom Self allows a scene change for The Better Half. This one act play sees Alice (Tracey Pickup) and Marion (Eyre) as two gossiping friends in Alice’s bedroom one evening. Marion is very timid, shy, restrained and is utterly taken aback when Alice slips into conversation that she knows about Marion’s undying love for her husband David (Stephen Fawkes). Alice is determined to poke fun and appears fine about the whole thing, since she herself is no longer in love with David and is dying to provoke some sort of passionate reaction from him. Even when confronting David she antagonises him to try and eke out some visceral response about the whole torrid affair, which she is well aware has never happened.
Pickup is the star of this play (and indeed the show) here. Cheeky, over confident and nonchalant, she oozes a kind of mischief and is determined to toy with both her friend’s and her husband’s emotions to further her own gain. Pickup puts this across with barbed sarcasm; her barbed speeches threaten to cut you if you come too close. She is both intrinsically damaged and deeply insecure, and entirely in control and wearing her flippancy like a mask with which to catch out the others. Eyre and Fawkes are again suitable as kind-hearted saps but can’t keep up with Pickup both in character and in performance.
The accompanying fan given out to the audience before the show began was a welcome reminder of the setting for both these plays – middle class problems dealt with in a restrained and typically British manner.
A Naughty Night with Noel Coward is playing at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 29 August. For more information and tickets, see the Old Red Lion Theatre website. Photo by Ben Coverdale.