The sumptuous little jewel box of Richmond Theatre in Surrey is home this week to a play by Noel Coward that both celebrates and questions the role of a star of the 1930s’ theatrical firmament. Samuel West stars as Garry Essendine. Not a literal self-portrait, Essendine shares many of the daily rewards and frustrations of the successful theatrical phenomenon that Coward had become. In 1941 Coward himself played the lead, enjoying the centre-stage role he had written for himself.
The play has a melancholic undertone, perhaps echoing the mood of England immediately pre-war, as well as Coward’s own approaching middle age. This new production gives the original play new depths, particularly in the first half. Garry’s bravura mask is not in fully in place as we meet the close-knit team that work in mutual dependency with the glamorous star, and we understand the temptations and pressures from which they protect him. There’s great humour in the “performance” Garry launches into, to try to disentangle himself from the young “sweet and twenty” fan who has inveigled her way into the house to stay the night. We hear the refrain that will recur throughout the play: Garry is always acting. But is he? And if not, who is able to tell when he is not?
The second half introduces a more frenetic comedic mode. The vamp who aims to break up the relationships among his secretary, wife and old friends, to possess Gary herself, is routed, after much farcical slamming of doors and many witty one-liners by all concerned. The dénouement is superbly handled as, from the excellent set’s pulpit-like staircase, Garry denounces the behaviour of those who have criticised him.
I particularly enjoyed Toby Longworth’s blustering Henry and Jason Morell’s histrionic Morris. Zoe Boyle creates a glamorous, sulky Joanna and Patrick Walshe McBride settles into his role as the rather scary, obsessive young “progressive” fan. Phyllis Logan and Rebecca Johnson deliver Coward’s sardonic lines with understated panache. Daisy Boulton is sweet, innocent and as predatory as all the intruders into the star’s studio.
Coward, himself from a working-class background, wrote the star’s servants as characters, not mere adjuncts. Fred, reversing 1930’s conventions by going out on the town in elegant evening dress, is played with gusto by Martin Hancock. Sally Tatum as the maid is moody, loyal and eccentric.
I thoroughly relished Samuel West’s performance as Coward’s doppleganger, seen, as Sheridan Morley has commented, “through a series of distorting mirrors”. An excellent evening’s entertainment.
This review or an edited version of it will be published on August 2nd
on the Essential Surrey Magazine's Theatre page.