The Theatreguide.London Review
Harold Pinter Theatre Spring 2014
There are great Noel Coward plays – Private Lives and Blithe Spirit, for example – and no doubt there are poor Noel Coward plays, though I've never encountered one. And then there are the merely very good Noel Coward plays, funnier than almost anyone else can write, and lacking only by the Master's own high standard.
That's where I'd place Relative Values. As Trevor Nunn's all-but-flawless production demonstrates, at its best this comedy is a thorough delight, but there are just a few too many dry stretches and a few too many characters that don't rise above the generic – in short, a few too many chances for you to catch your breath between laughs.
Relative Values is a satiric look at the English class system written in 1951 just as it was crumbling rapidly (and before things like Downton Abbey encouraged a belated nostalgia for it).
A stately home is all a-dither because his young Lordship is engaged to a Hollywood star, and what's worse (small spoiler alert here) she's the sister of one of the house's servants. Cue loads of comic harumphing about knowing one's proper station and the evils of rising too high or dipping too low, as much coming from below stairs as above.
Coping with the crisis involves the dowager duchess, her maid, the Jeeves-ish butler and assorted others in a string of stratagems designed either to survive the proposed marriage with dignity or, even better, prevent it.
One problem with the play is that it takes much of the first third to set up the situation and much of the last third to resolve all the plot complications, so that, while there are laughs throughout, only the central scenes are free to immerse themselves in the comedy.
The highpoint is a scene in which the actress, trying to make a good impression, tells a string of lies about her past, not realising that almost everyone knows they're lies and is either reacting with droll poker faces or mischievously encouraging her to dig herself even deeper.
Much of the delight throughout the evening comes from the fact that the characters are familiar types behaving exactly as we would have them do – the ever-polite but dangerous-to-underestimate lady of the house, the quietly witty and resourceful butler, the glamorous and airheaded starlet. But that also imposes limits on the actors.
Patricia Hodge can deliver the arched eyebrow and understated zinger like few others but also gives the mother an unexpected emotional depth, Rory Bremner invests the butler with a pleasantly archetypal feel largely by giving the impression of imitating an actor playing a butler, and Steven Pacey plays an amused observer with a Puckish feyness that may not be in the text.
But none of the others – Caroline Quentin as the maid with the embarrassing relative, Leigh Zimmerman as the actress, Ben Mansfield as her actor ex, Timothy Kightley and Amanda Boxer as confused neighbours – can put their mark on their roles, giving generic performances of generic characters.
Measure this play by Coward at his absolute best and it may feel like B-grade material. Measure it by any other standard – say, by the absolute best of television comedy – and it stands far above. In either case, all of it is some fun and some of it a lot of fun.
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Review - Relative Values - Harold Pinter Theatre 2014