Volcano was never performed in Noel Coward’s lifetime, apparently judged either too scandalous in subject matter or too close a depiction of the real life affairs and intrigues of Coward’s celebrity friends. Producers Thelma Holt and Bill Kenwright present the first major production of the work, which gives an insight into Coward’s own tropical lifestyle during his time as a tax exile.
This isn’t quite a frothy drawing room comedy – and not just because it takes place on a Pacific island on the slopes of an ominously rumbling volcano! The trademark wit and web of tangled relationships are there in abundance, but this has a darker edge to it than many of Coward’s better known works.
The lynchpin of the piece is Jenny Seagrove as Adela, an attractive widow managing her late husband’s banana plantation and fending off the attentions of the raffish Guy Littleton. Seagrove carries off the role with seemingly effortless grace, delivering an understated and subtly nuanced performance. Jason Durr oozes oily charm as her would-be paramour, ably matched by Dawn Steele as his spiky wife Melissa. Strong performances also come from Perdita Avery as the naive and not-so-innocent Ellen Danbury, and Tim Daish as her husband Keith, and my heart lifted every time Finty Williams and Robin Sebastian stepped on stage: the duo are a delightful breath of fresh air as (mostly) down-to-earth neighbours Grizelda and Robin Craigie.
Under Roy Marsden’s direction, the cast maintain a high level of emotional tension throughout. This is certainly not a rolling-in-the-aisles comedy, but there is plenty of humour (albeit some of it of a rather uncomfortable sort) which is handled skilfully and with the necessary lightness of touch. There is the occasional clunky line of dialogue, though it feels as though this is the fault of the script rather than the actors: one wonders if the lack of performance in Coward’s lifetime meant it never got a final polish after an initial run.
There are apparently also some impressive pyrotechnics from the eponymous volcano – though unfortunately the Playhouse’s sightlines prevented those of us on the right-hand edge of the auditorium from witnessing those for ourselves.
Overall, a polished and professional production, which offers a satisfying night out, and will be a welcome addition to the canon for fans of Coward’s less frivolous works.