There are times when even a great actor/playwright can be too prolific. In 1926, Noel Coward collapsed on stage with exhaustion, three weeks into the run of The Constant Nymph. His next show, The Marquise, would open in his absence the next year at the West End’s Criterion Theatre (and later play a modest season at Broadway’s Biltmore Theatre, too), but it wasn’t a big success.
In fact, 1927 was to be one of Coward’s worst years. There were two other shows: Home Chat closed in a matter of weeks, and another, Sirocco got an even worse reception, with jeers, catcalls and fistfights at the curtain call and Coward spat at by the angry mob at the stage door!
We’ve been spared revivals of both of the latter, but we’ve not been so lucky with The Marquise, which has been revived for a national tour in a production that merely proves why it’s hardly ever been since its original staging.
Coward completists may well want to collect it as a curiosity piece, but others will be mostly baffled by this drawing-room comedy of 18th-century society (ill) manners, which is set in France, where the uninvited arrival of the title character at a countryside Chateau precipitates a night of revelation of long-suppressed family secrets.
It would be unfair to reveal the convoluted proceedings, but suffice it to say that this apparently ‘scarlet woman’ actually has a moral core that’s lacking in the pair of once-ardent suitors who, some twenty years earlier, had courted her and more.
Though Guy Retallack’s production has an elegant design by Tim Shortall and a bravura turn of melodramatic gesturing from Kate O'Mara, who brings an ample bosom to fill out the Marquise, there’s far too much italicised acting and overwrought emotions from some of the plodding supporting actors, especially amongst the juvenile leads.