The Royal Exchange has unearthed a real gem in Noel Coward's Nude with Violin, a play which premiered in 1956 but has barely seen the lights of an English stage since. Though more than forty years old, the play tackles issues still much debated - namely, what is art and what makes it valuable?
In these days of arthouse scams, cows in formaldehyde and artists who brazenly pay others to produce their work, the play feels fresh and relevant. It's not just the subject matter that feels fresh either. Coward's dialogue dances off the tongues of a fine ensemble cast, directed with a real lightness of touch by Marianne Elliot.
At the centre, Derek Griffiths shines in the role of Sebastien, the butler of the recently departed Paul Sorodin, a renowned artist. Sebastien has all the best killer one liners, and Griffiths delivers them with perfect timing and relish.
As Sorodin's family and his agent, Jacob Friedland (John Bennett), gather together after his funeral, the truth about Sorodin's great body of work unfolds through a series of visits from rather one-dimensional but nonetheless entertaining characters, each very well played (Rosalind Knight as Ana Pavlikov is especially good). Each new arrival throws the group into escalating turmoil, causing intense friction and exposing the play's themes of hypocrisy, morality and deception.
Coward's writing accomplishes this with apparent effortlessness, resonant at times of Wilde, who also delighted the English upper classes while simultaneously baring their faults. Like Wilde, Coward was a great wit, a man who experienced both the adulation of English society and its scorn. In the year Nude with Violin premiered, Coward's popularity took a nosedive. Recoiling, he moved to Jamaica as a tax exile, and his place in English theatre was usurped by the “angry young men” of the era, led by John Osborne, whose play, Look Back in Anger, premiered the same year.
Despite a rather ignomious end to his career, this year being the hundredth anniversary of Coward's birth, much of his work is being reappraised. Quite right, too as the Royal Exchange s Nude with Violin demonstrates. This production handles everything with just the right balance of elegance and irreverence. Nude with Violin may not leave you pondering the nature of art, but it's a great comedy that will make you laugh, and leave you smiling for a long time after.