Review: A Song at Twilight (Theatre Royal Bath)
Simon Callow and Jane Asher star in this revival of Noël Coward's play
Noël Coward, badly done, can seem more than a smidge out of date. It's all those period sets, the long, batting back and forth conversations, the erudite wit (there's not much for the lol generation). But the truth is that when given the best of stagings, Coward's plays cut through the sound and fury around us and get to the heart of what it means to be human. And that's absolutely the case with his play A Song at Twilight, which portrays a famous ageing writer whose hidden past rears its head when an old lover arranges a meeting.
One of Coward's later plays, A Song at Twilight is an amusing, but ultimately haunting focus on Hugo Latymer who has spent his whole life lying about who he really is. Giving too much away would spoil the play's denouement, but let's just say that Carlotta – with whom Hugo had an affair over 20 years ago – arrives at Hugo's hotel room, welcomed by his wife, with revelations about his sexual and emotional past that she threatens to reveal to the world. The majority of the play is the encounter between Carlotta and Hugo – bookended by appearances from Hugo's wife Hilde – and builds and builds from seemingly benign to explosive.
The play is hugely poignant in the way it deals with public and private faces and forbidden relationships and is still relevant and stirring today. But Coward's dialogue – funny, knotty, layered and a little old fashioned – needs some absolutely stonking turns for it to really fly. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite get them here. While Simon Callow as Hugo (a part Coward himself played in his final stage performance in 1966) is perfectly watchable, his portrayal lacks nuance and as a result the final moments of the play, where Hugo's sad reality is on show for all to see, don't have the impact they should. Jane Asher, though a light and endearingly petulant presence, struggles more with Carlotta. She does Carlotta's coquettishness well, and with a twinkle in her eye, but she's just not strong enough a performer to really make Coward's lines run deep.
Jessica Turner as the German Hilde, on the other hand, is brilliant. Both upright and uptight, you can sense how she has buried her life's sadnesses and losses in order to get by. Though we don't see it at the beginning, she is Hugo's saviour – both throughout his life and on the night the play is set – and by the end, she convinces that love is not simple.
Stephen Unwin's production keeps the pace up and allows the script breathing space. Simon Higlett's hotel room designs – with a wide window at the back of a Swiss lake vista – evokes the period and claustrophobic hotel room setting beautifully. You can almost taste the crisp vodka and caviar. It's just a pity that the revival doesn't offer the play the chance it should to really shine.