Relative Values

Reviewer's Rating

This Noel Coward comedy from 1951 is a deceptive creation. Its form is a familiar one, the country house comedy. Its preoccupations – class, snobbery, ‘foreignness’, nostalgia, deception – had a particular flavour in the early post-war years but still seem very relevant in Cameron’s Britain. But to read the play as a paean to snobbery would be to miss the point. Such a view would ignore the contrasts offered in the differing views expressed by a range of characters and to ascribe the playwright’s viewpoint to one or another of them. It is a play about snobbery but not a snobbish play.

The plot is simple. The young and callow Earl of Marshwood announces that he is to marry an American actress. His mother, the dowager Countess, is uneasy; the other denizens of Marshwood House, above and below stairs, react more or less negatively to the news. It turns out that the actress is not what she seems but neither is the Countess’ maid, Dora Moxton. The play revolves around the obvious question – will the planned marriage survive the introduction of the American actress into the traditions and prejudices of Marshwood House? The outcome is not too difficult to predict but the route to the denouement is funny and, at some moments, unexpectedly moving. And Coward’s gift for quick-fire witty dialogue is abundantly displayed.

Any play featuring TV stars runs a risk of being judged by warped criteria. Casting Rory Bremner and Caroline Quentin in lead roles was a curious decision by director Trevor Nunn but, as it turns out, an inspired one. Casting Patricia Hodge in the central role of the Countess of Marshwood was perhaps a safer bet but, even at ‘odds on’, she delivers the goods magnificently in a performance of such style and wit that she effortlessly dominates a very good cast. Steven Pacey has a particular take on the role of the Countess’ nephew and carries it through with real charm. There are a series of cameo gems – particularly from Timothy Kightley and Amanda Boxer as the dinosaur neighbours, Sir John and Lady Hayling.

The Harold Pinter Theatre is an ideal venue for this production which was originally created for the lovely and intimate Theatre Royal Bath. There is one set, the library of Marshwood House – its door into the hallway seems almost constantly to have someone listening at the keyhole and there are always girl guides lurking in the shrubbery outside. One word of warning – if you are unsettled by cigarette and cigar smoke, don’t sit in the front few rows!

This play certainly deals with some uncomfortable prejudices – but the driving force of the plot – suspicion about the actress/fiancée – is guided by anti-Americanism rather than by class prejudice. The central theme is fear of change and Nunn emphasises the “let’s retreat to old certainties” mood of 1951 by filling the scene changes with old newsreel footage.

This is first and foremost an enjoyable if predictable comedy with some stand-out performances. But it is worth some serious thought too. Nunn calls it “Coward’s satirical play about the British obsession with class” and it makes some telling points within a deceptively simple framework. And with actors of this calibre delivering Coward’s dialogue so well it’s an evening of real pleasure.