Downton Abbey has a lot to answer for. It seems that we can’t get enough of posh country houses, the contrasts between the nobs and the staff and the incursion of new money.
I know they did things differently in 1951 but Noel Coward’s satire on snobbery must have been old-fashioned even then. Could the appearance of a film star of humble origins really shake an entire household, both above and below stairs?
Trevor Nunn‘s production has some nice touches: each scene kicks off with a Movietone newsreel, setting the events in context (although, judging by the age of the audience at this Brighton perfomance, they’d need no help on that score) and the play is perfectly paced throughout. What Nunn can’t do, however, is hide the creakiness of the plotting and the caricatured characters.
The shining light is Patricia Hodge’s Felicity, the chatelaine of the manor, who has most of the best lines and induces most of the laughs. It’s the only really meaty part in the whole play and Hodge makes the most of it. There’s a solid theatrical debut from Rory Bremner as the butler, fulminating against the heresy of social equality (and getting the only round of applause of the night for doing so) and displaying an almost Jeeves-like sense of near-omniscience. Bremner has the good comedian’s sense of timing and provides a touch of humanity to the proceedings.
Steven Pacey has great fun as Felicity’s camp and mischievous nephew and Katherine Kingsley is a suitably flamboyant diva. But Caroline Quentin is far too heavy-handed as Moxie, a subtler touch would have been more effective.
But perhaps she had the right idea: the whole play is so preposterous that going a bit over-the-top is the only way to go. It must be said, the audience loved it. If there are enough theatregoers out there old enough to recall the first Attlee government and still live in fear of the Socialist bogeymen, then this could yet be a winner.