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Cowardy Custard (Southwold)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Once upon a time there was a London theatre tradition of sophisticated revue which had some of its roots in the fertile soil of the nightclub floor-show. Times change, along with fashions, and there developed a genre of potpourri shows usually based on the highlights from just one person’s creative career and the life which fuelled it. An early example was the Gerald Frew, Alan Strachan and Wendy Toye entertainment based on the work of Noël Coward.

Director Anthony Falkingham has chosen this as the opening production of the 27th summer theatre season mounted by the Jill Freud Company in Southwold and Aldeburgh. His designer Maurice Rubens has provided an art deco false proscenium and arched inner setting in black linear-decorated in gold. There are flights of steps leading towards the back of the stage, smart chromium bar stools (for perching on with attitude) and a white grand piano.

The four male performers and musical director/pianist Jonathan Rutherford wear white tuxedos; the five women are in formal black evening clothes. Very few props intrude, but when present they’re appropriate, and there are minimal costume changes. Visually therefore the production suggests the right air of elegance with an slight implication (correct for the period of composition) of “conscious slumming" for the Cockney numbers. For the most part the voices cope well with the music and Sidi Scott’s choreography is effective within the somewhat cramped conditions of the stage.

I would have liked crisper articulation both for some of the lyrics and the linking dialogue. Coward’s lines, even the apparently throw-away ones, have bite and this sometimes failed to come over. Amy Price and Kate Middleton are particularly effective; Paul Leonard and Richard Gibson likewise. The Sail Away numbers (less familiar perhaps to a 21st century audience than “The stately homes of England”, “Don’t put your daughter on the stage” or “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”) worked very well and suggest that a revival might find more appreciation than the original 1962 production earned.