Volcano, a lost Noel Coward play, made its West End premiere at the Vaudeville Theatre last week on 16 August (previews from 14 August). Written in 1956, the play examines the love lives and affairs of a group of ex-pats on a volcanic island in the South Pacific. Starring Jenny Seagrove and Jason Durr, Volcano runs until 29 September.
Jenny Seagrove as Adela Shelly and Jason Durr as Guy Littleton. Photo: Francis Loney
Has Noel Coward's Volcano erupted in a lava-minute comedy treat? Hardly... at this time in his career, Coward was reinventing himself as a cabaret star and a tax exile. His Jamaican retreat, where he painted, relaxed and entertained, was his heaven on earth. This looks like hell... The scene where Ellen and Keith "have it out" is the best in the play, and proves that Coward could write about the heart in a direct way. There's little of the trademark flashing brilliance elsewhere, though there are nice tart asides and some agreeably weary bons mots from the visiting couple of Robin Sebastian and Finty Williams... Volcano's much more like Somerset Maugham light than Noël Coward heavy, and it's going to take a far more radically adventurous, and at the same time faithful, revival than this to establish it in the margins of the repertory.
...Volcano could be described as lukewarm Somerset Maugham: set on the fictional South Pacific island of Samolo, it deals with carnality among the colonial set. The pivotal, though hazily defined, figure is Guy Littleton, a philanderer allegedly based on Ian Fleming... in general, the play is flabbily written and displays an ageing writer's disdain for the kind of sexual pleasures he once joyously advocated... Jenny Seagrove has a nice ice-maiden appeal as Adela, and Jason Durr as Guy is all languorous, white-tuxedoed charm, as if auditioning for the role of 007... But, written from the vantage point of a brooding tax exile, the play puts a case for sexual solitude few would wish to endorse... Coward's insensitivity to a rapidly changing world becomes all too apparent.
Noël Coward's rediscovered play has an intriguingly racy subtext, but it's no lost masterpiece... Though it was written in 1956, it received its premiere in a staged reading only in 1989, some 16 years after the author's death. To say that this is unsurprising is a helpful equivocation... For much of the first act, it often seems like the most stilted kind of suburban adultery drama transposed to the South Pacific... one cannot imagine the Lord Chamberlain, Britain's theatrical censor until the late 1960s, having much to object to in this material; it does little more than use the S-E-X word.
Is this a Noel Coward parody that I see before me, starring Charles and Fiona from Round the Horne? No: it's the real thing, albeit never performed in his lifetime... So I got interested. But anyone who expects the bite of Hay Fever and Private Lives may get restive; it is not his wittiest script. As the volcano overhead grumbles towards eruption, one daydreams about a replay of Pompeii... But no: they all survive the blast, and beyond the interval Adela tidies the wreckage, physical and emotional... we get... interesting shocks, some pleasingly sharp sexual cross-patterning and a final vision in which the brittle disrupters fade to leave a vision of domestic peace.
The familiar Coward world has been turned, not exactly upside-down, but to a different angle: one that sees behind the social veneer to the realities of the sexual battlefield... Although Volcano is a second-rate work that, had it been produced, would doubtless have been considerably revised, it nevertheless reveals Coward's gloriously sure touch upon the keys of human motivation... Even more than wit, he has wisdom, as this production goes some way to proving... Director Roy Marsden has decided not to deploy the cigarette-holder-aloft Coward "style", and this is quite right, although a little more bite and briskness would not go amiss... Ultimately Volcano is a curiosity, rather than an unearthed masterpiece. Yet it provides an evening of near-constant entertainment, and of unremitting interest.
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