Noël Coward’s 1926 This Was A Man had the good fortune to be banned before its London premiere for its casual depiction of adultery. That scandalous history has leant the play one of the few things it has going for it, an aura of inscrutable intrigue. Now, however, the lid’s been blown off the mystery box by the Leicester Square Theatre’s production, and, alas, there’s only a whiny and tedious affair inside: it’s hard to imagine that 1926 audiences would have been much amused, let alone titillated.
Director James Paul Taylor’s well-meaning production may not be the first ever iteration of This Was A Man in the UK (that was at the Finborough Theatre in 2014), but it is apparently the first time the full text (all ninety minutes of it) has appeared on a British stage. Taylor has assembled a game but uneven cast: some actors are playing characters their own age, some actors are ten or twenty years too young, and the combination creates a pervasive sense of artificiality that unsettles the performances. While the actors dress in 2017 attire, they put on 1920s voices that are much too loud and caricatured for the intimate venue.
None of Coward’s characters earn much sympathy – it’s easy to see, ethically speaking, why censors might have objected. Edward Churt (Paul Vitty), an aimless sketch artist, discovers that his wife Carol (Daisy Porter) has been carrying on a string of affairs, so his best friend Evelyn Bathurst (Tom Pike) takes it upon himself to test Carol’s fidelity and teach her a lesson. Both Edward and Evelyn are just as susceptible to the pleasures of the flesh as Carol, so plans go recklessly astray, leaving the trio unmoored and thoroughly lacking any sort of moral to share with the audience.
Coward’s several minor characters get short shrift, but Georgina Ezuanyanike makes the evening’s best impression as Edward’s gregarious, self-interested sketch model Margot Butler. Of the central trio, Porter’s Carol comes across as most convincing, with glimmers of humanity beneath an acerbic veneer, but the three central characters rarely seem to be listening and reacting to one another: their repartee seems rehearsed rather than desperate or triumphant or real.
Most of the dialogue itself feels like paint-by-numbers drawing room banter so Coward has done the cast few favours. Still, there are a few lines that suggest the blend of pain and pungent drollery that Coward achieves so well elsewhere. Edward expresses his impassioned suffering to his former flame Zoe St. Merryn (Bibi Lucille), exclaiming, “You refused me and ran off to Africa,” and she zings back, unwilling to engage with him or hear him, “You can’t call Algiers Africa.” It may not be the stuff of great comedy – or great drama – but it’s a reminder that, even after all the evils escaped Pandora’s mystery box – presumably dreariness and pretentiousness among them – there was still a little thing called hope at the bottom.
This Was A Man is playing at the Lounge at the Leicester Square Theatre until May 28.