Apollo, Shaftesbury Avenue, matinee
The choice, Coward said in a comment quoted in the program, is to play it as a light comedy or a romp. This is a romp, a double tour de force by two seasoned comediennes, Felicity Kendall and Frances de la Tour. Kendall has great credentials, both in comedy and more serious plays; she was the female lead in Stoppard’s Arcadia and in several other Stoppard plays. De la Tour has done everything from Cleopatra to Albee (she was in Three Tall Women and in the original Almeida Play about the Baby). They make a fine contrasting pair of friends turned antagonists; in the second act drunken scene you can spot the exact moment, as if a clock was striking the hour, when the friendship turns sour — predictably, over a man. The same man, in this case. The simplest of plots: both Julia (Kendall) and Jane (de la Tour) had a prenuptial affair with a charming Frenchman, Maurice Duclos. Maurice is turning up again, and the friendship predictably disintegrates into jealousy. A tactful lie on Duclos’s part puts all right in the end. The roles of the two husbands are rather minor affairs (sorry); they turn up again in Act III in time to have their jealousies calmed by smart-talking Duclos. Meanwhile, the real fun is in the long dinner scene, when Julia and Jean, dressed in their finest evening wear, get very drunk, and the housemaid, an amazingly brash and super-competent Jill-of-all-trades (she plays Chopin in her free moments on the living room piano), serves dinner, pours drinks, and imparts advice unsolicited.
You can just see what a talent to amuse Coward really had. Of course, you can look one quarter-inch below the surface of the action and see Coward exposing the empty, meaningless existence of the leisure class. But for all that, Coward clearly loves these people, even while he knows them for what they are. And he shows us where they live. Romp or comedy depends on the actresses and the director. Michael Rudman is a seasoned mounter of farce and comedy, and his expert sense of farce — intricately timed encounters with a treacherous, hostile environment — never deserts him here. Kendall and de la Tour are brilliant accomplices. This matinee audience had an average age of sixty-five, I think — I was right at home. They are a vastly different audience from what could be found in the Apollo on, say, a Saturday night. But they came to be well entertained, and they were; and they let the actors know it in no uncertain terms. It is really all so simple; transparent, what Coward is up to here. That obviousness does not get in the way of laughter to the smallest extent. At every moment you can see where things are going to go next. And it doesn’t matter — or, rather, it matters a great deal, because knowing where we are headed is an essential prerequisite for enjoying the fun along the way. You start this play wondering what on earth could justify the trouble and expense of a revival of such a piece of fluff. You end and head out of the theatre understanding ever more clearly the perennial appeal of plays that make no pretense of being anything other than what they are: sparkling vehicles for bravura performance. Never mind about Coward as the cynical observer of meaningless existence in black tie and bare shoulders. He understood style, profoundly, and his ability to translate it to the stage was absolute and peerless.