The Rat Trap
Finborough Theatre Winter 2006
Here's a real discovery - Noel Coward's first play, written when he was 18 and not performed since a two-week run in 1926, now revived by a strikingly ambitious over-a-pub fringe theatre.
A must for all Coward fans, certainly, and with enough merit to attract even the non-fan's interest.
And what's it like? Very much like the first play of a remarkably talented 18-year-old. It's not a very good play on the whole, but it has some strong scenes and flashes of near-brilliance - the sort of thing that would make you look forward to the young writer's next work.
And looking back, it shows a lot of hints of what was to come – a couple who can't live with or without each other, a yearning to escape conventional morality, a fascination with the witty and artistic set, fledgling attempts at what would become Coward's signature epigrammatic wit and, not incidentally, a central role for himself.
A couple of writers fall in love and marry. She is an established serious novelist, he a promising popular playwright.
A friend warns that two artistic temperaments won't be able to coexist, and soon the novelist finds herself giving up her work to play wife and cocoon his fragile ego.
A number of plot twists later the play finds an ambiguous ending that acknowledges that some of the obstacles to their happiness are unconquerable.
What is impressive about the play is its ambition, its attempt to take on serious questions - about art, marriage, feminism, the power of society - in an at-least-partly comic context. That's also part of its undoing, since the young writer can't quite juggle them all.
It has some very strong scenes, particularly the couple's attempts to talk about their problems and their succumbing to bickering over them, but also some woefully underwritten secondary characters.
There are hints of the mature Coward wit, but also the awareness that he's working hard at them, which is a death blow to wit (only later would he master the art of making it all look effortless).
Director Tim Luscombe has unwisely led his cast to play much too large for the tiny room, which means that they all come across as grossly overacting until a few settle down and find a more workable tone.
Perhaps not coincidentally, it is the worst-written characters that are most poorly acted - a flutteringly artsy neighbour, a bimbo actress, a particularly tiresome housekeeper (though the last does get one good scene near the end).
In the central couple the wife has a more complex emotional journey, which gives Catherine Hamilton more opportunity to create a rounded characterisation. Gregory Finnegan takes longer to find a reality in the husband but gets there in the end. Federay Holmes does nicely with the largely mechanical role of a concerned feminist friend.
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Review of The Rat Trap - Finborough Theatre 2006