You'd think that the combination of a classic Noel Coward comedy like Relative Values and a leading lady like Susan Hampshire - still fondly remembered for The Forsyte Saga and, more recently, Monarch of the Glen - it'd be hard to go too far wrong. Well, you'd be mistaken.
Set in the 1950s, the plot revolves around the Countess of Marshwood who hears her son, the Earl of Marshwood, is to be remarried. She's shocked to learn that the bride-to-be is not only a Hollywood starlet but also her maid's long-lost sister, and is determined to put a stop to the proceedings at any cost. It's starry Hollywood versus stiff-upper-lip England - and could all be great fun.
Unfortunately, in Joe Harmston's production, it quickly becomes apparent that, if it weren't for Hampshire as the Countess (which she previously played to good reviews in the West End), we would be in for a very dull evening indeed. Hampshire's position is strengthened by the fact that her character has all the best lines, but she also does her part in making the very most of them, which, relatively speaking, isn't difficult when surrounded by such a lacklustre cast as assembled here.
Three of the company - Ruth Arnold as the trusty maid Moxie, Ken Bones as the loyal butler and Simon Green playing family friend Peter Ingleton - strive to meet Hampshire's benchmark. But the rest seem wholly out of their depth, especially Michelle Gomez, cast as the young American starlet but exhibiting neither the skill nor the looks to make the role believable, and Sophie Jerrold who plays the below-stairs maid Alice as if impersonating Su Pollard.
Designer Tom Rand's ancestral home set also leaves a lot to be desired. It consists of plain brown material walls, five chairs, a settee and a couple of desks, while the "grand" entrances are flatly painted marble-effect plywood doors and pillars with wooden curtains to match. All of which lends the production a cartoonish feel, and certainly isn't indicative of the opulence required.
With all of that said, there are still two good reasons to see this show. First, to admire Susan Hampshire's truly and heroically professional performance, despite all around her. And second, to marvel at the fact that, even after all these years and at the hands of such abysmal treatment, Coward can still provide ample laughter and an entertaining night out.
- John Dixon (reviewed at Newcastle's Theatre Royal