I did wonder if ‘The Questors Student Group 68’ held any particular significance or hidden meaning as a title for a young theatre company. Alas, not really: The Questors, which styles itself as ‘Ealing’s theatre’, a west London bastion of amateur dramatics and training courses, has had 67 previous cohorts of students who have also presented their skills to the paying public over some decades.
Originally the Questors had decided to present Hands Across The Sea after The Young Idea in this double bill. The decision was reversed, and wisely – the latter was infinitely better than the former. Both plays are amongst the lesser known of Noël Coward’s plays, and any lover of Coward’s works will recognise the distinctive style, clipped tones, rapid delivery and exquisite humour.
Hands Across The Sea is set in London – Mayfair to be precise – and is hilarious and (deliberately) chaotic. Piggie (Natali Servat) is in need of a diary secretary, but doesn’t know it. She gives out invitations to tea, and accepts others, but doesn’t quite remember who is coming to what and when, or where and when her own presence is required elsewhere having accepted a kind offer to tea from someone else.
This comedy, set in ‘the present’ – actually meaning the year 1935, when it premiered – is ahead of its time. As various guests arrive for afternoon tea, the phone rings regularly, and Piggie (a nickname: she is properly named Lady Maureen Gilpin) does her best to deal with the interruptions. Her telephone manner is overly loud and melodramatic, to the amusement of the audience but to the annoyance of Mr and Mrs Wadhurst (Orlando Kilborn and Gabriella Pond), and various people who are not at the Gilpin residence want to talk to various people who are. How relevant is this to today, where many a social function is constantly disrupted by people on their phones.
A particular point of amusement for me was the role of Mr Burnham (Liam Hurley). Burnham has very few lines but this is only because he is there as an architect’s assistant, wanting to give Piggie’s husband, Peter Gilpin (Freddy Gaffney), some drawings. He almost succeeds in giving him some papers rolled up in a cardboard tube… when Piggie calls him over. It’s the phone again, and the caller wishes to speak to Peter. Quite a lot of the laughter that the play as a whole invokes, however, comes from the Gilpins not quite recalling who on earth Mr and Mrs Wadhurst are. It would be most un-British and inappropriate to have asked them outright. Thus the play has to be set in England, and in 1935. Set it in the States and the question would have been politely asked, equally politely answered, and the play swiftly ended. Set it in the 2010s and someone would have slipped out into the kitchen, whipped their iPhone out, Googled ‘Wadhurst’, and again, all resolved all too quickly.
The Young Idea focuses on George Brent (Artur Mrozek) and his second wife Cicely (Gabriella Pond), and George’s grown-up children by his first wife Jennifer (Sherralyn Lee) – Gerda (Lucy Coleshill) and Sholto (Liam Hurley). The Brents find their home in what is only specified in the script as ‘the hunting country’ – though ‘Guildford’ is later mentioned – but Jennifer, who secured custody of the children, lives out in Italy, so Gerda, 18 years old and Sholto, 21 (what names!) are relatively unaware of the British way of life.
‘The young idea’, so to speak, is to reunite George and Jennifer, a plot strengthened with greater resolve after a mutual dislike develops between Gerda and Sholto and ‘stepmother’ Cicely. “You’ve been divorced once,” Sholto muses to George. “It’s sure to be easier a second time.” Half the work is already done for the duo, as Cicely is seeing another man, Roddy Masters (Hassan Govia-Khan). George knows about the affair, and he knows about “Charlie Templeton […] and Mark Hunter, and Douglas Green”…
Overall, this is a strong student company and it would not surprise me if one, two or maybe more of them ended up at some stage in the future treading the boards in professional productions, or otherwise acting in film and/or television. I particularly admired Gabriella Pond’s Cicely, with a magnanimous stage presence even with the shrill shrieking with which she chose to express exclamation and contempt. Wayne Wilson as Hiram J. Walkin, a suitor for Jennifer, also shone. The part is relatively small and is he in and out in minutes, but Wilson established the character well enough to deserve a round of applause by the time he makes his exit. His earlier incarnation as the servant Huddle was absolutely delightful.
Only in Coward could dancing partners be described as having hands “like wet hot-water bottles” and a dancing style like “a threshing machine”. Only in Coward would a woman called Beryl be judged by an act of forgetfulness: “She borrowed the top of my Thermos, and never returned it. Shallow, very shallow.” And only in Coward would insanity be summarised as eating “the buttons off padded chairs!” This double bill is an excellent presentation and celebration of British comedy drama at its finest, and with the Questors Theatre prices being what they are (and no pretentious ‘restoration levy’ either) extremely good value for money too.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Questors Academy Student Group presents
The Young Idea
by Noël Coward
Sparkling 1920s comedy from our Student Group
11th July to 18th July 15 in the Judi Dench Playhouse
George Brent and his second wife Cicely are not in love. In fact they have never been particularly in love. So George’s children from his first marriage hatch a plan to rescue him from Cicely and reunite him with their mother, his first wife, on the Italian Riviera.
This early comedy by Noël Coward, written at the age of 21, clearly identified him as a fresh new talent in British theatre, and it sparkles with his characteristic wit and the clash between bourgeois stuffiness and bohemianism of his well known comedies. This is a rare opportunity to enjoy one of Coward’s personal favourites.
This will be accompanied by a performance of Hands Across the Sea, a short farce also written by Noël Coward.
Suitable for ages 11+
These plays are presented by Questors Academy Student Group members.
£13.00 (£12.00 conc, £7.00 under-16/student), final Fri/Sat £15.00 (£14.00 conc, £8.00 under-16/student)
Bargain Tickets £6.50 on 14 July
Questors Official website
Sunday 12th July 2015