THE BUTLER, THE FETE, AND THE HOLLYWOOD HORROR
I saw this Coward revival last summer in Bath (Times review, £, http://tinyurl.com/qyxqbw2 ) with its gorgeous Palladian country-house drawing-room by Stephen Brimson Lewis matching the Theatre Royal’s own sumptuousness. I remembered the clever casting of Caroline Quentin, solidly honest, as the matter-of-fact lady’s maid Moxie who discovers to her horror that the young earl’s Hollywood fiancée is her own long-lost (and unregretted) sister who ran away.
I applauded the brilliance, both in comic timing and feeling, of Patricia Hodge as the dowager Lady Marshwood fussing over the village fete but aware in 1951 that she belongs to a bygone Downtown world, “something that’s over and done with…So many of one’s friends have to work, and they’re so bad at it!”. England is slowly struggling out of the aspic of prewar social certainties , its nobs trying to work out the difference between above-stairs and below. In one argument they decide that one could, for instance, take one’s golf instructor to the opera, but noe one’s butler – even though both might be born in identical social circumstances.
Trevor Nunn wisely intersperses the scenes with bits of newsreel, both real and cod, reminding us of the recent war and rationing, the Festival of Britain, and Prime Minister Churchill’s unconvincing speech about the end of social distinctions.
Quentin is still brilliant, better if possible than at Bath; so is Hodge. And this matters, because the emotional core of the play is the longstanding devotion, even friendship, of mistress and maid, compared to the hollow flibbertigibbet romance of the silly young Earl and the self-absorbed Hollywood girl with her movie-star ex and misery-memoir fibs about her humble childhood. The scenes where Moxie has to pretend to be a “secretary” so as not to lose face and liten to the actress Miranda showing off, are as funny as anything in Coward. Stepping into the cast as Miranda is another treat: Leigh Zimmerman, so funny and touching in A Chorus Line, here playing the part of the Awful Actress with elegant glee.
And for aficionados of dear Noel, it is fascinating to see a late – if lesser – play in which (las in Volcano) the old chap has grown bored of his passionate young lovers from Private Lives and Design for Living, and just wants to celebrate long, calm partnerships which make less fuss. It is also fun to notice his chippy, insecure references to other dramatists . They’re given to the butler Crestwell, like “If you will forgive a Shavian archaism…” or “Yes, a coincidence in the best tradition of British comedy. Imagine what Mr Somerset Maugham would make of it!”.
Ah yes, Crestwell. He is Rory Bremner, and to be honest, still not brilliant. Nothing you can put your finger on, and to be fair a butler always is to some extent an impressionist – playing a part, perhaps a little jerkily, in front of the toffs. But there’s a dryness here, a lack of reality. Only once does he seem real, when Moxie is berating him. But it’s fun, a cheerful evening and a last laugh from a Coward no longer brittle, but wistfully acknowledging how the anchor of daily, familiar affections is a consolation in a crumbling world.
0844 871 7615. atgtickets.com/london to 21st June