There’s a darker, deeper edge to Coward’s 1958 play Volcano than in the work which framed it. It deals with brittle people, in this instance the colonial plantocracy, but they are vulnerable in a way that those of Hay Fever, Private Lives or Relative Values are not. You can see why theatre managements, and stars, turned it down.
We’re on the veranda of widow Adela Shelley’s home on the mythical volcanic island of Samolo. Her marriage has been a happy one, and she still grieves for her husband, but a woman of 40 in the late 1950s is nearer the precipice of older age than her 21st contemporary might be. Neighbour Guy Littleton, awaiting his wealthy London socialite wife’s visit, has homed in on Adela – as he homes in on any apparently available female.
Melissa, Guy’s wife, when she arrives shows herself to be a bitch of the first water. She recognises Adela as a threat, completely dismisses young Ellen Danbury as a possible candidate for her husband’s attentions and more or less ignores Adela and Ellen’s mutual friend Grizelda Craigie. Neither Robin Craigie nor Keith Danbury are men who do much more than circulate on the edges of their wives’ orbits. Guy apart, husbands are like worn-in shoes or sink-into chairs – providers of home comforts.
It’s a piece which depends on the acting to carry the audience into this world, in many ways so artificial, and to make us care about those of its inhabitants who we meet – there are servants, but we never see them; children, but they’re at school or at work in England. Director Roy Marsden has selected a strong cast, though I would have wished for some crisper articulation as the initial scene is taken at quite a brisk pace. Simon Scullion’s set is immensely evocative, burning browns and lava-red crowding in on the fragile-seeming plantation house.
Jenny Seagrove is ultimately very moving as Adela, forcing herself to balance past and future and (perhaps) by-passing the present. Finty Williams has an enjoyably no-nonsense air as patient(?) Grizelda while Perdita Avery gives Ellen the right mix of girl and woman, someone just a little too young and naïve for this type of life. As Melissa, Dawn Steele has some of the best throw-away lines, and makes the most of them.
Robin is the observer character, a sort of Coward simulacrum in many ways. Robin Sebastian gives him as much depth as the author allows and there’s a good sketch of the young engineer Keith by Tim Dash. Guy probably sees himself as a more caring Don Juan but can’t really understand why any woman might decide that “no” is the best response to any of his advances. Jason Durr has the sort of Errol Flynn or Clark Gable swagger the part demands.