Noël and Gertie (Frinton)

You could sum up the 50-odd year friendship between Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence in the title of the musical which Coward wrote in 1929 – “Bitter Sweet”.

They met as child actors on tour and their friendship lasted until her death in spite of professional and emotional disagreements and the communication hazards of the mid-20th century. Sheridan Morley described his confection of their letters, telephone calls and a goodly proportion of Coward's own words and music as "an entertainment".

Entertain, in Matthew Townshend's stylish new production, it most certainly does. Julian Forsyth stepped in with only one day's rehearsal to play Coward, which he does to the mannerism born. This is more than a clever impersonalisation; it's a moving one.

With Helen Power as a strong-voiced and nimble-footed Gertie and with Steven Edis as musical director and pianist, the audience is taken from backstage dressing-rooms to actual performance We have the impression that we have been allowed to see under the greasepaint to glimpse the hearts and minds – almost through to the souls – of the two larger-than-life people portrayed.

Designer Martin Robinson keeps his characters in black and white, with a black-beaded white chiffon dress for Power as Gertie (she has the majority of the costume quick-changes to negotiate). The set is brick-walled, with star dressing-rooms at left and right. It's all flexible enough to adapt for the fully-staged sequences, such as those from Private Lives and Still Life.

The audience on the opening night was disappointingly small, though none the less enthusiastic. This is a production worth seeing while it's on the Essex coast; I can think of several small theatres which could accommodate it if it was picked up for a tour. "I'll see you again" runs the lyric. One hopes that might come true.

Noël and Gertie runs at the Frinton Summer Theatre until 23 August.