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Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
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Has Noel Coward's Volcano erupted in a lava-minute comedy treat? Hardly, but there's plenty in this unknown 1956 love-among-the-ex-pats scenario on the fictional island of Samolo to merit attention and even interest.

Director Roy Marsden first stoked the play's embers at the Palace, Westcliff, twelve years ago, and critics were guardedly enthusiastic. His new version is a mild-to-middling success, though there's far more accuracy in atmosphere than in period costume and hairstyles.

The trousers are terrible. And so are the men's. Everyone looks as though they come from Croydon and shop in Littlewoods. The set has a fine moment early on, lit by moonlight and blue with jungle promise against the louvred doors of Jenny Seagrove's veranda.

But in the harsh morning light, it shrivels to a polystyrene grey landscape, like a fairground monster. At this time in his career, Coward was reinventing himself as a cabaret star and a tax exile. His Jamaican retreat, where he painted, relaxed and entertained, was his heaven on earth. This looks like hell.

Coward was intrigued by the affairs of his neighbours, especially that of novelist Ian Fleming and the glamorous plantation owner Blanche Blackwell. Their Volcano surrogates are Jason Durr's emphatically Errol Flynn-like Guy Littleton and Jenny Seagrove's slightly too worn-out and mumsy Adela Shelley; you'd hardly accuse her, as Guy does, of "vintage coquetry."

Guy's married to the long-suffering, glamorous Melissa of Dawn Steele (who's at least vivacious and eminently watchable, despite the trews); when he's rebuffed for the umpteenth time by Adela, he falls on Perdita Avery's lumpen Ellen Danbury - why? - who is married unhappily to a chap called Keith (well, wouldn't you be?) who turns out to be Guy's old school chum - on a trip to the bubbling crater.

The scene where Ellen and Keith "have it out" is the best in the play, and proves that Coward could write about the heart in a direct way. There's little of the trademark flashing brilliance elsewhere, though there are nice tart asides and some agreeably weary bons mots from the visiting couple of Robin Sebastian and Finty Williams.

Coward's biographer Philip Hoare reckons that Volcano is the most intense examination of marital relationships since Private Lives. It may well be, but it's not nearly as vital or funny or true: it's as though Coward dumped the public persona that defined his style and his glamour and wrote a play that anyone else might write.

Volcano's much more like Somerset Maugham light than Noël Coward heavy, and it's going to take a far more radically adventurous, and at the same time faithful, revival than this to establish it in the margins of the repertory.


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