Noël Coward's acid-tongued and sharp-witted comedy of appalling manners is set in the library of an old country house in east Kent where Felicity, Countess of Marshwood, a dowager whose upstairs-downstairs relationships with her staff is somewhat threatened when her son and heir, Nigel, comes home engaged to Miss Miranda Frayle, a British-born Hollywood actress whose star has lost some of its glitter.
Moxie, the personal maid of the Countess can't abide the thought of Miranda Frayle becoming mistress of the house and decides she must leave the employ of the Countess (after 20 years of loyal service). When pressed for a reason for her adamancy, Moxie says: "Because she happens to be my young sister."
After much protestation, Moxie is persuaded to stay on and in order for her to meet her sister on terms of complete equality, Moxie is re-invented and moved upstairs socially as the Countess' ‘companion', complete with disguise and new identity. The sight of a servant being treated as an equal, taking meals and being on a Christian name basis with her ‘masters', is the snobbism on which the joke of the play centres. Says Crestwell, the all-knowing butler: "It is a social experiment based on the ancient and inaccurate assumption that, as we are all equal in the eyes of God, we should therefore be equal in the eyes of our fellow creatures."
As the Countess, Patricia Hodge has the lion's share of the dialogue and she gives a scintillating performance. The other star turn comes from Caroline Quentin who is both comical and sorrowful as the dowdy Moxie. In fact, both actresses know just how to play Coward - always based in reality and never descending to farce - and most of the rest of the cast match them, with some nice turns coming from Steven Pacey as a gay nephew, Amanda Boxer as a haughty neighbor and Rebecca Birch as an animated maid.
As the butler, Rory Bremner is making his theatrical debut and director Trevor Nunn really should have helped him find some heart behind what is, unsurprisingly, a great comic performance. Also guilty of too much style over substance are Leigh Zimmerman camping it up as Miranda Frayle and Sam Hoare gurning his way through his performance as Nigel.
The play is undoubtedly dated, but Coward's acidulous understanding of the stately homes of England and his breathtaking ability to rattle out pithy epigrams keeps the laughs coming. It's a little lengthy for modern tastes (two and three-quarter hours) so a little judicious cutting would help, but even at its current length I defy anyone to come out without a smile on their face.
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