When we think of Noël Coward, we tend to think of the witty older gentleman who had built a reputation as playwright, songwriter and master of the well-turned epithet. We don’t tend to remember that he started out as a young child actor, during which period of his life he first met Gertrude Lawrence, the actress with whom he would come to work on numerous occasions and form a lifelong friendship.
The late drama critic and broadcaster Sheridan Morley constructed this revue of Coward’s work in the early 1980s, using the relationship between Coward and Lawrence to showcase some of the former’s songs and plays. The result is an evening of biting wit, poignancy and unbridled fun.
As Coward, Ben Stock wisely stays away from the man’s trademark clipped tones, which could so easily descend into caricature. It’s a risky move, but it just about works: after all, Coward’s dialogue and musical numbers are enough to express the character of the man. Helena Blackman is far luckier, in a way, in that we don’t have so much of a strong impression of Gertrude Lawrence, so she can create a character onstage with the type of clarity that no-one ever playing Coward could. There’s also something about the era which sits particularly well on her, as if a star from the 1930s has somehow stepped through time and found herself, somewhat inexplicably, playing in an unassuming theatre in Marylebone some 70 years later.
Excellent lighting and costume designs help supplement the two actors’ performances to create an evening that is a fitting tribute to one of the twentieth century’s finest English dramatists, and the woman whose personal life was far more tumultuous than the average play. Indeed, if anything is at fault here, it’s that Morley’s script concentrates on extracts from Coward’s works – from Private lives to Blithe Spirit and Still Life – in which Lawrence played, while the drama of her own life plays second fiddle. But you are almost guaranteed to come out of the two-hour show marvelling at Coward’s skill, two actors’ evocation of an era, and a yearning to see a revival of the man’s longer works as soon as possible.