It’s not often that you see Noel Coward plays and rarer still that you see them performed in such a space as Finborough Theatre. With possibly more actors on stage than people in the front row, the Finborough is definitely one of the more intimate theatres in London. As a result it really felt like we were in the home of Paul and Janet Ebony (Tim Chipping and Zoe Waites) making this production of Home Chat feel that bit more cosy.
The story follows Janet Ebony and her best friend Peter Chelmsworth (Richard Dempsey) after a train crash during which they were sharing a sleeping compartment. Upon their arrival back to London the two are met with suspicion and scorn by Janet’s family and Peter’s fiancée as they are accused of infidelity. Outraged by her family’s lack of trust in her, Janet hatches a plan to teach them a lesson…but things don’t quite go according to plan.
The lights dim and immediately the audience is confronted with a barrage of sound and light. There is a spotlight on a toy train set and soon the context of the train accident becomes clear. The lighting and sound design is consistently impressive and slick throughout the performance. Although there are only a couple, the scene changes are perhaps the best I’ve ever seen. The wonderful Robert Hazle as servants Pallett and Turner provide us with vocal treats so that the set changes feel more like scenes and when he stops singing, met with applause, it is almost disappointing.
Every actor in the cast is strong, which is impressive given their number. Waites’ portrayal of Janet is so energetic that every time she comes onstage the atmosphere shifted drastically. The star of the show, however, has to be Clare Lawrence Moody, playing Mavis Wittersham, an infatuated friend of Paul’s with a nervous disposition. Every time Mavis threatened to leave the house, I thought to myself “no, stay so I can watch more of Moody” for every time she was in the room I found my attention drawn to her.
As a comedy, Home Chat certainly doesn’t disappoint. As a fan of Noel Coward’s writing, I often found myself chuckling to some of the witty one liners – particularly when they were delivered by the two more experienced actors Polly Adams and Joanna David who show what happens when the veneer of mother-in-law niceties between Mrs Ebony and Mrs Chilham disappears.
With Noel Coward being such a celebrated playwright it is strange that this 1927 play is only now experiencing its first UK revival. Perhaps it’s due to its initial unpopularity with contemporary audiences. Indeed the story feels more like one written in the 21st century, with modern themes of female sexuality and individuality so aptly expressed in Janet’s line “I am shirking off the chains that have shackled me for so long…” So it isn’t hard to imagine 1920s audiences taking a dislike to it. All I can say is that I’m glad director Martin Parr decided to give it a second chance.
Home Chat is playing at the Finborough Theatre until September 24.
Photo: Bob Workman