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Tonight at 8.30: ‘This is Noel Coward at his finest’ | Review

Ian Hallard, Sara Crowe - Shadow Play
Ian Hallard, Sara Crowe – Shadow Play

The sheer mixture of styles and content in the plays that comprise Tonight at 8.30 (there was a time, not within my living memory, when shows went up at 8:30pm, which explains other theatrical terms and phrases like ‘eleven o’clock number’) is such that it is almost a pity the audience wasn’t treated (or at least exposed) to all ten of the one-act plays written by Noël Coward. We were, at least, furnished with ‘Star Chamber’, very rarely performed, partly on account of Coward’s decision to remove it from the repertoire during the original run in 1936, and partly because, to be blunt, nothing really happens in that play.

That is, however, what Coward presumably intended to portray. This committee meeting, supposedly chaired by Xenia James (Sara Crowe), is in chaos, despite the best organisational efforts of Mr Farmer (Nick Waring). It would appear the committee members of a theatrical charitable fund have not met for some time. This being before the days of social media and all the rest of it, there is so much to catch up on, and updates on various people’s personal and professional lives take precedence over the meeting’s agenda, even though it shouldn’t. In an entertaining way, it says much about how vacuous and self-serving (some) people can be. Considering some of the news that has surfaced recently about certain registered charities, it would appear not much has changed.

Sitting in a theatre for a series of one-act plays that started at 11:30am and finished just after 10:00pm invited, on the day London Marathon participants were pounding the streets, analogies about undergoing a marathon of our own. The analogy is somewhat inept. Beyond the obvious differential between spectating indoors and running outdoors, the day went by relatively quickly, and neither myself nor the production ever hit, as far as I could deduce, ‘the wall’ (the point at which one suddenly becomes very fatigued).

Some plays, inevitably, appealed more than others. ‘Hands Across The Sea’ had the audience in stitches. The Hon Clare Wedderburn (Rosemary Ashe) was especially bombastic, and her larger-than-life personality and very direct vocabulary was utterly delightful (though my sympathy is very much with anyone who finds themselves the subject of one of her putdowns). ‘The Astonished Heart’, also set in a London flat in the mid-1930s, almost immediately established a very different atmosphere, pretty much the flip side of ‘Still Life’, itself better known as its later incarnation, ‘Brief Encounter’.

Miranda Foster takes on the role of Barbara in ‘The Astonished Heart’ and Laura in ‘Still Life’; in the first, she is betrayed, in the second, she is a betrayer. Both sides of the same coin are played with remarkable conviction.

The set changes too, were a joy – it would have been a bit much to have an interval after every play, so, whenever two are played back to back, an opportunity is given to appreciate just how quickly and thoroughly ‘the stage management’ transform the studio space from, for example, a country club veranda to a luxury hotel room. Stefan Bednardczyk was versatility personified – the elderly butler with selective hearing in ‘Hands Across The Sea’ was also a disobliging musical director in ‘Red Peppers’, and proved a dab hand at the piano in the pauses between plays, playing yet more Coward compositions.

I could go on with examples of that nature for some time, but nothing is gained in giving too much away. Suffice to say, seventy-five characters are shared between the cast of nine over the day, even if a few of them are named simply as ‘waiter’ or ‘photographer’. There is the option of seeing three shows at a time, on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evenings; otherwise, all nine are performed on Saturday and again on Sunday. The 1930s clipped accents may not have been as prevalent as they perhaps should have been, given the commitment to staging the plays more or less in their original settings, with period-appropriate costumes.

It’s certainly an ambitious project to have taken on – a note in the programme almost regrettably admits, “we store the furniture all over the building in the most unlikely places” – and there really is something for everyone. I had my preferences, as did fellow theatregoers who I spoke with in the breaks. There are love stories, there are melodramas, there are unsentimental comedies, and one or two have some cracking tunes. Charming with a capital C, this is Coward at his finest, and it’s Jermyn Street Theatre at its finest, too.

5 Star Rating

Review by Chris Omaweng

Noël Coward’s Tonight at 8.30, running from 10 April – 20 May, features nine one-act plays ranging from music-hall pastiche, to light comedies, to heartbreaking drama. These have been arranged into three trios entitled Secret Hearts, Nuclear Families, and Bedroom Farces, with the chance to see all three trios (nine plays) in a single day on Saturdays and Sundays.

Nine actors play 73 roles across the nine plays. The ensemble cast includes Olivier Award-winning Sara Crowe (her West End roles include Sybil in Private Lives, Calendar Girls, Bedroom Farce), Ian Hallard, who was nominated for Best Actor for The Boys in the Band in last year’s WhatsOnStage Awards, Nick Waring (Queen of the Desert with Nicole Kidman, The Heart of Things, Jermyn Street Theatre), Miranda Foster (Gertrude, Hamlet, Shakespeare’s Globe; Harry, Springs Eternal, Orange Tree Theatre), and Olivier Award nominee Rosemary Ashe. Musical direction and piano is provided by Coward specialist Stefan Bednarczyk, who also plays a number of roles. Jeremy Rose (currently at English Theatre Frankfurt in Jekyll and Hyde), Boadicea Ricketts (nominated for two OffWestEndAwards as Best Actress and Best Ensemble in her debut as Sylv in the revival of Steven Berkoff’s East), and Ben Wiggins (Princess Katherine, Henry V, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre) complete the cast. Set design is by Louie Whitemore, twice nominated for OffWestEnd Awards for her work at Jermyn Street Theatre last year, and costume designs are by Emily Stuart (two-time OffWestEnd Award winner). Choreography is by Gabriella Bird, lighting by Tim Mascall, and sound by Tom Attwood. The plays are directed by Tom Littler, Jermyn Street Theatre’s Artistic Director.

Cast (and the roles they are playing in the season):

Rosemary Ashe: Clara (We Were Dancing), Nanny (Ways and Means), Martha (Shadow Play), Lily Pepper (Red Peppers) Violet (Star Chamber), Myrtle (Still Life), Emily (Family Album), Clare Wedderburn (Hands Across the Sea).

Stefan Bednarczyk Musical Director / Piano and playing: Major Blake (We Were Dancing), Alf (Red Peppers), Jimmie Horlick (Star Chamber), Albert (Still Life), Bu:rrows (Family Album), Peter (Hands Across the Sea), Sir Reginald (The Astonished Heart)

Sara Crowe: Louise Charteris (We Were Dancing), Olive Lloyd-Ransom (Ways and Means), Victoria (Shadow Play), Xenia James (Star Chamber), Dolly (Still Life), Lavinia (Family Album), Mrs Wadhurst (Hands Across the Sea), Leonora (The Astonished Heart).

Miranda Foster: Stella (Ways and Means), Sibyl (Shadow Play), Miss Mabel Grace (Red Peppers) Dame Rose (Star Chamber), Laura (Still Life), Jane (Family Album), Piggie (Hands Across the Sea), Barbara (The Astonished Heart).

Ian Hallard: Karl (We Were Dancing), Chaps (Ways and Means), Simon (Shadow Play), Johnny Bolton (Star Chamber), Johnnie (Still Life), Richard (Family Album), Mr Wadhurst (Hands Across the Sea).

Jeremy Rose: Servant (We Were Dancing), Gaston (Ways and Means), George Cunningham (Shadow Play), George Pepper (Red Peppers), Julian Breed (Star Chamber), Bill (Still Life), Edward (Family Album), Ally (Hands Across the Sea), Ernest (The Astonished Heart).

Boadicea Ricketts: Eva (We Were Dancing), Princess Eléna (Ways and Means), Lena (Shadow Play), Hester (Star Chamber), Beryl (Still Life), Harriet (Family Album), Walters (Hands Across the Sea), Susan (The Astonished Heart).

Nick Waring: Hubert Charteris (We Were Dancing), Toby Cartwright (Ways and Means), Michael (Shadow Play), Mr Edwards (Red Peppers), Mr Farmer (Star Chamber), Alec (Still Life), Jasper Featherways (Family Album), Major ‘Bogey’ Gosling (Hands Across the Sea), Christian (The Astonished Heart).

Ben Wiggins: George (We Were Dancing), Stevens (Ways and Means), Young Man (Shadow Play), Alf (Red Peppers), Maurice (Star Chamber), Stanley (Still Life), Charles (Family Album), Mr Burnham (Hands Across the Sea), Tim (The Astonished Heart).

Tonight at 8.30 plays in repertory with Tomorrow at Noon, featuring three new plays by Jenny Ayres, Emma Harding, and Morna Young, each of which reacts to one of Coward’s Tonight at 8.30 plays, and responds to it in a contemporary voice. Ayres, Harding and Young were chosen from over 390 anonymous entrants.

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