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This Was A Man (Finborough Theatre)

Belinda Lang's production of Noel Coward's formally banned play could do with a retelling

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Nicholas Audsley, Georgina Rylance and James De Courcey
© Glasshopper/Nik Eagland

After having seen a dramatic divertissement by the divine Noel Coward, it is frightfully difficult to desist from speaking in his wittily distinctive idiom. So much of the joy of Coward's work is in the carefully tooled language, and at times his aphorisms, encapsulating the concerns of the milieu he so frequently portrays - British high society between the wars - achieve the greater height of universal truth.

This Was A Man, written in 1925 by the precocious twenty six year old playwright, takes us to familiar, gorgeously attired territory. Edward (Jamie de Courcy), a society painter, using one of his circle, Margot (Grace Thurgood) as a model, banters with her and reveals the moral realm: Margot despises marriage and wants affairs instead. Edward, reticent and troubled, is soon to receive confirmation that his wife Carol (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) feels the same.

When Zoe comes to visit, we see Edward's spirits rise: here is a woman he nearly married once, attractive and searingly clever - the two have remained great friends. Georgina Rylance gives Zoe satisfyingly languid elegance, pin-sharp diction and a Coward staple – a suggestion of a raised eyebrow whenever she has her defences about her. When her true feelings are revealed later, this eyebrow is dropped and Zoe's face takes on a more contemporary cast: authentically vulnerable.

Edward's other supposed great friend, Evie (Robert Portal) is a military man. Whenever Evie enters, we are cheered by the characterisation: his bullish determination to stick to an antiquated code of manners is beautifully and humorously captured by Portal in a rigid, pin-striped posture, pursed lips and a staccato delivery. He castigates Edward for not having a macho response to Carol's infidelities, but soon proves that he cannot stick to his own principles in a clumsy failed attempt to right the moral universe.

Carol burns her way through the action with a callous disregard for male suffering. In this character more light and shade would have been welcome. As an early version of a type no longer unfamiliar or castigated (by sane people at least) - the woman who enjoys sex – director Belinda Lang could have rendered Carol more sympathetically. As it is, she is so hard-faced and scheming, we uncharitably wish for her comeuppance.

The Finborough have scored a notable coup in giving us the premiere of This Was A Man, which was (whimsically) banned by the Lord Chamberlain in the UK between 1926 and 1934, though it found an audience internationally. Definitely worth reviving, the piece has wise things to say about the complex negotiations of marriage and sex which ring true today now that we all have license to experiment as the toffs once did.

Lang's production is remarkably sumptuous for the tiny theatre and sticks rigidly to a naturalistic interpretation (apart from the invisible pictures framed on the wall). Surely it is time now to treat Coward's drawing room dramas with less reverence? The pulsing subtext of betrayal and trauma would lend itself well to a more radical theatrical retelling.

This Was a Man runs at the Finborough Theatre until 2 August 2014