Review: Tonight at 8.30 (Jermyn Street Theatre)
Noël Coward's cycle of nine short plays comes to London in a rare revival
Theatrical completists should flock to Jermyn Street where Noël Coward's cycle of nine short plays with music, under the banner title of Tonight At 8.30, is receiving a rare revival in its entirety. Of the nine, Red Peppers about a warring pair of married vaudeville performers is probably the best known, although another, Still Life, provided the basis for Brief Encounter.
Seeing all of them together on one day, it is striking how variable the quality of the plays is. Tom Littler's production has a similar inconsistency, ranging from delightful when at its very best (the blissfully funny Hands Across The Ocean) to awkward and sluggishly paced at worst.
There is no connecting line running through the plays although Littler has grouped them into trios vaguely bonded by theme. If you don't have the time or budget to see all three then the one I would recommend is Nuclear Families which comprises Family Album, a gently humorous Victorian-era tale of a family reeling from the impact of their patriarch's death, the utterly hilarious Hands Across The Ocean which sees a wonderfully eccentric socialite hosting some people she met on tour in Malaya only to find that the pair on her coach aren't who she thinks they are, and the Rattigan-esque The Astonished Heart, a surprisingly biting look at a marital breakdown.
In the Secret Hearts tranche of plays, both Red Peppers and the backstage-set Star Chamber register as camp ‘luvvie' fun but are too inconsequential to be really satisfying, while Still Life comes across as painfully stilted, especially when compared with Emma Rice's gorgeously inventive take on Brief Encounter, still playing a couple of blocks away.
For me, the least successful of the trios is Bedroom Farces which includes a surreal marital infidelity extended sketch, notable mainly for how unfunny it is, and a tedious comedy about a couple in financial dire straits amongst the high rollers on the Côte d'Azur. The concluding piece, Shadow Play, is yet another depiction of a marriage on the rocks but plays around with form and storytelling in a highly original way and is notable for a really lovely performance from Sara Crowe as the bewildered, truth-telling heroine.
Originally conceived as a star vehicle for Coward himself and Gertrude Lawrence, this staging spreads the leading roles more evenly amongst the ensemble cast of nine. Crowe is a hoot as an adorably silly theatrical grande dame in Star Chamber, and as a rubber plantation owner's socially awkward wife in Hands Across The Sea. Miranda Foster makes a touching Laura in Still Life and is completely gorgeous as the daffy socialite in Hands, partnered by Stefan Bednarczyk who appears to be channelling Coward himself as her amusingly irascible husband. Bednarczyk is wonderful too as the deaf-as-a-post family retainer in Family Album. There's superb work from Ian Hallard in a variety of roles, and Rosemary Ashe has great fun as Lily Pepper but is really in her comic element as the opinionated, permanently sozzled Hon. Claire Wedderburn in Hands Across The Sea. She is creasingly funny, as is Boadicea Ricketts as a supremely affected housemaid who moves at a glacial pace with a sickly smile on her face.
Set designer Louie Whitemore impressively transforms Jermyn Street's tiny stage into a variety of locales, and there is enough variety that the whole nine plays in a single day is not as daunting as it sounds. Theatregoers who associate Coward solely with erudite wit may be surprised at the emotional depth of some of the scenes here, but unfortunately also at some of the longueurs – particularly during Bedroom Farces. All in all, it's a mixed bag but at its best it truly sparkles.