The main thing I came away with from seeing the three programmes of Noel Coward One-Acters collected under the title Tonight at 8.30 is what really brilliant, innovative and unexpectedly varied plays they are.
I took a friend who actually played in some of these pieces in a Post World War II revival and she was torn between nostalgia, remembering lines she thought she had forgotten, and irritation at what she felt was a complete lack of understanding of the style. But theatre styles change; and memory fixes them affectionately. I was less aware of stylistic solecisms and in most ways I thought the ensemble work and direction were more than adequate if not always spot-on.
I felt that Blanch McIntyre did, however, seem to give much the same tone to each of the plays, while clearly the text I was hearing required a greater variety of approaches. Also, of course, Coward wrote these plays to star in each and every one and bring his idiosyncratic voice and modulations to each one. In this case the parts are distributed among the ensemble.
Coward seems to me in these works to have been experimenting mightily – and also to be making some very clever references throughout to both popular and highbrow culture. One of the most delightful inventions has to be Red Peppers, which is its own vaudeville show. Every one of the plays can be taken straight – or taken as a comment on a theatrical style that is being both exploited and sent up. One of my favourites was Fumed Oak – a kind of East End version of A Doll’s House for a man. Peter Singh stood out as Mr Gow, who leaves his stale marriage after a great tour de force of invective and complaint, slamming the door behind him just like Nora. Another favourite was, of course, Still Life – which became the movie Brief Encounter. It’s fascinating to see the differences between the one-act play and the full-length film, not least the ones required by censorship and restrictive public mores when the cinema version got made.
I want to state clearly that all the plays are brilliantly written and they made me wonder why Noel Coward is not more clearly seen to be one of the true geniuses of British 20th Century Theatre. I definitely want to go back and read more of his works after this.
Full marks to Blanche McIntyre for trying to avoid the cliché of the well-turned phrase and the drawing-room comedy acting – especially since many of the plays are simply not drawing-room comedies. But even one that is – Ways and Means with it oblique reference to Bernard Shaw’s approach to social problems in plays like Arms and the Man – has an edge of critical awareness of society that is dazzling and gives the play more layers than are usually acknowledged in Noel Coward’s work.
For me there was not enough differentiation of style and presentation from one drama to the next. The pieces are playing with theatrical conventions and the normal expectations of the audiences; they demand considerable attention and are constructed with astonishing skill. The direction, the tones of voice, the body language, even, have to be more varied and apt than here. Noel Coward understood about both humour and sentiment; and he certainly had a talent to amuse, as he claimed. All this, and Coward’s wit and critical eye on his characters must come through.
Edward Albee used to praise Coward, claim he was under-rated, and acknowledge him as a strong influence on his own writing. These plays, whatever the limitations of the productions, simply prove Albee was right. Every one of the plays is a thought-provoking surprise; and they are surprisingly more provocative and cheeky than I expected. They are very much worth a visit.