As one yet to enter into the Cult of Coward (or the Novitiate of Novello, for that matter), I could only follow so far into the obvious and fulsome love for the pair which writers and cast have poured into this production. While the two entertainers certainly penned some entertaining songs, neither their lives nor melodies are really strong enough to support a two-hour show.
Half narrative and half showcase of as many Coward/Novello melodies as possible, even a gentle puff of scepticism towards this “celebration” of the two entertainers dissipates the airy premise holding the show together like so much fizz in a champagne flute.
While some songs suited the story marvellously, (“Mad About The Boy” soundtracked Novello’s admirers and “London Pride” was a predictably stirring way into the war years), many bore only tenuous relevance or were altogether arbitrary.
The 13-song “concert” after the narrative ends is an example of enthusiasm for the source material leading to a something which actually makes the show weaker – so many songs back-to-back was an untimely reminder that a lot of Coward and Novello’s work is a little bit one-note.
That said, any reservations about the premise and the writing are moderated by the performers, who are consistently charming. Stuart Barham, pianist and narrator, has a wonderful, expressive storytelling voice and, clad in green velvet, suits the scene impeccably. The wholesome and handsome Darren Bennett brings the relatively obscure Novello to impressive life. Of the two chameleonic women, leaping ably from mother to lover to passer-by, from Cockney to Welsh to American, Nova Skipp pips her partner Margaret Preece slightly, but across their many characters the two maintain an impressive rapport.
A little more darkness in the narrative wouldn’t have gone amiss – we are informed very early that Noel is a cruel man, but very little comes of this observation. While the two men’s highs were emphasised wholeheartedly, lows were hurried over, which left the emotion of the more bittersweet numbers feeling somewhat unearned.
At its premiere the show had a run-time of 70 minutes and has since expanded – from last night’s performance I get the impression that a shorter performance would probably suit the stories of these light entertainers rather better. The shorter version is headed to the Fringe this year, and I imagine 50 minutes will cut out much of the dead weight and leave a fittingly swift and bright show behind.