I can’t resist a Noel Coward play – clipped, witty and, despite appearances, wonderfully daring, Coward’s drawing room comedies have an enduring charm which has kept them in the favour of London audiences ever since their first performances. This Was A Man, then, is an exciting prospect – an early Coward play getting a London premiere 80 years later, as at the time its portrayal of adultery was deemed too scandalous.
The small Finborough stage is transformed into a fashionable sitting room, all velvet, chintz and twenties music, and the thrust staging makes the audience feel that they are in the room with the characters, giving a much more intimate feel than Coward’s work usually does. The use of the landing outside the room adds to this, acting as an extension of the flat, so that the we are caught right in the middle of the drama.
It can be easy to give lazily caricatured performances in Coward, but none of the cast succumbs to this, and there are several brilliant performances. Jamie De Courcey makes a rather refreshing lead – less mannered and arch than his counterparts in Blithe Spirit and Private Lives, he is likeably hapless, even if he seems more confident with the more naturalistic speech than with the patented Coward wit, and Georgina Rylance (Zoe) has a voice made for the language and rhythm of the dialogue. The standout, however, is Dorothea Myer-Bennett as Edward’s unfaithful wife Carol. Sharp, vivacious and wielding an excellent laugh, she illuminates every scene and retains a wonderful dignity throughout.
Coward is not quite in his element here – the play lacks pace at times, and the dialogue doesn’t quite have the sparkle of his later work – but the tone is overall much more serious. The play is a wonderful display of the victimisation of unfaithful women, and allows Carol to be a real, flawed person rather than a two-dimensional temptress. The play also never shies from the willingness of the men she seduces, showing the way that they allow themselves to be flattered and used rather than solely focusing on Carol’s manipulation, and it is probably this that got the play banned – it portrays the unfaithful if not sympathetically then truthfully.
Despite the serious themes of the play, there are still some big laughs. Coward has always excelled at barbed exchanges, and there is some brilliant satire on popular theatre in mentions of a play called The Sinful Spinster which was disapproved of by the Church of England, and a reassurance that there will be no trouble getting tickets on the night for a “nice clean play”. But despite ample charm and comedy plus some brilliant, engaging characters, it’s Coward’s handling of real emotional truth that makes the play successful.
This Was A Man is playing at the Finborough Theatre until 2 August. For more information and tickets, see the Finborough Theatre website.