A Song at Twilight at the Gielgud Theatre
The thought of a brother and sister playing lovers on stage would, in normal circumstances, be quease-inducingly risqué, but in the instance of Noel Coward's A Song at Twilight, it seems entirely appropriate. There is no more chance of sparking genuine romantic passion between real life ageing siblings than there is of firing it between the fictional Hugo Latymer and his one-time girlfriend Carlotta Gray.
It is 1965 and Hugo is a famous writer and a closet homosexual who has, all his life, hidden behind the charade of marriage and other heterosexual relationships. But now here's Carlotta, come for a surprise visit after 40-odd years with a stack of incriminating letters, intent on dismantling Hugo's carefully contructed public image.
Coward, a closet homosexual himself, claimed that A Song at Twilight was based on the public and private life of writer William Somerset Maugham, but many critics, the director and Coward biographer Sheridan Morley included, maintain that it is the most autobiographical of all the playwright's work. Either way, the play certainly gives an interesting insight into the turmoil that Coward, and other prominent gays, must have experienced in their efforts to suppress their true nature at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in England.
This particular production is made all the more interesting since the brother-sister acting team is none other than Vanessa and Corin Redgrave who, in addition to being two of the finest actors of their generation, lived their childhood in the shadow of their father's well-known homosexual affairs. The Redgraves also knew Coward personally so they have a personal affinity to the material here in more ways than one.
A preference for men is just about the only characteristic that the principals share here. Hugo is tired and curmudgeonly, ready to give in to old age; while Carlotta, slave to the scalpel, is kicking and screaming against the years. The Redgraves set the clash of styles and the consequent war of wills up beautifully. The best scenes see them on the stage alone, facing each other over the dinner table, forks, knives and quips flying. Keeping the family affair intact is Corin's real-life wife Kika Markham who is sound as his more-secretary-than-soulmate wife with a corner on common sense that the other characters seem to lack.
This is by no means a flawless evening. Morley's direction is slack in many scenes and Coward's script does suffer from some strange turns - most crucially, Carlotta's rather inexplicable, last minute change of heart - but it's still worthwhile, if only to catch the inestimably talented Redgraves in action.