The Theatreguide.London Review
Finborough Theatre Summer 2014
Noel Coward's drama was denied a license by the Lord Chamberlain in 1926, evidently because it seemed to take the subject of adultery too lightly, and gets its first professional UK production only now.
Of course the censor got it all wrong, and like most of Coward's work the play is only pretending to be immoral and has a profoundly moral and sentimental core.
The play is very certain that adultery is a bad thing, not for any church-inspired reasons, but because it demeans and insults everyone involved, and people – especially those of style and wit – should want to treat each other better.
The wife of a society painter plays at flirtation and adultery largely because it is the game that everyone in her circle plays, but he doesn't deserve such mistreatment and she ought to be above it.
Since he won't stoop to her level, a conventionally moral friend decides to fight for him by flirting with the wife and giving her some of her own medicine.
He should know better, though, than trying to play a game he doesn't know with such an expert opponent, and he just makes things a lot worse so that the husband has to abandon his scruples and sort everything out himself.
Coward's point is that it is all so ugly and unnecessary, that dishonesty insults everyone by turning them into either knaves or fools, and that these people have it in them to be better, even without relying on conventional morality.
Although a serious play, it is written in Coward's signature clipped and witty style, and the one serious failing of director Belinda Lang's production is that the cast haven't captured that sound, and what should be epigrammatic wit or precisely thought and phrased debate is too often just talky and undramatic.
That's more than a style problem – in the absence of church morality, the standard by which these people should be measuring themselves and behaving better is their intelligence and their sense of what is and isn't done.
Take away the axiom that they all have it in them to be better than some of them behave, and the play threatens to sink into soap opera without a moral core.
As a result, Jamie De Courcey has to fight harder than he should to keep the husband from seeming just a weakling and Dorothea Myer-Bennett can't find much to suggest that the wife is more than just a bitch.
Robert Portal plays the friend as appropriately stiff, smug and dim, while Georgina Rylance has little to do but be wise and lovely as the woman the artist should have married.
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