The Theatreguide.London Review
Apollo Theatre Spring 2008
Noel Coward's 1924 drama, his first great success both as writer and actor, was a fairly daring look at some of the darker shadows of the Smart Set.
An ageing social butterfly is forced to face the possibility that her days of feigned youth and toyboys may be ending, while her weak and effete son tries to come to grips with his own emptiness.
The interesting thing is that the play was written as a vehicle for the actor playing the son, Coward himself (He was followed by John Gielgud and Ivor Novello, so you see the pattern), and this revival is structured as a vehicle for Felicity Kendal as the mother.
Now, I should pause to confess that, like any intelligent man of my generation, I have been in love with Felicity Kendal for three decades, and I am happy to report that one of the minor problems with this production is that it is hard to believe that the sixtyish actress is as old as the forty-something character she plays.
If you told me the actress was younger than the actor playing her son, I'd happily believe you.
The play calls for Kendal to go from bright and carefree, to the strain of working to stay bright and carefree, to despair when the bubble bursts (Her current as-young-as-her-son lover leaves her for a younger woman, a plot twist you'll spot an hour in advance), to the horror of being confronted by her son with a litany of their combined failings. And the actress takes us through every step with easy expertise.
If turning a supporting role into a star turn works beautifully, converting what was written as the starring role into support is less successful. Dan Stevens isn't really able to make much out of the son or to hold our attention while Kendal is offstage.
This is particularly evident in the somewhat over-the-top final confrontation scene, the actor's opportunity to pull all the stops out and chew up the scenery as he pours out his pain.
I will be far from the first to point out that this scene is modelled closely on the Closet Scene in Hamlet (though I might be among the first to spot the borrowings from the last scene of Ibsen's Ghosts).
Imagine the Shakespeare played so that you found yourself ignoring Hamlet and focussing on the mainly silent Gertrude. It might well offer some interesting insights, but it would surely warp the play somewhat.
And that's what happens here. Stevens lacks the personality or ability to make the son's pain of interest to us, and we wish he'd shut up and let us feel for his poor mother.
To be fair, Stevens is only following direction. Peter Hall directs this revival in the left-handed manner he reserves for purely commercial projects, his one major contribution being to shape it as a star vehicle.
Barry Stanton has a few bright moments as a bitchy old queen, and Phoebe Nicholls more as a friend old and loved enough to speak some painful truths.
But they and everyone else in the cast have clearly been directed to be as invisible as possible, to keep the metaphoric spotlight from ever straying from Felicity Kendal.
And, after all, who can complain about that?
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