NOEL COWARD’S CHRISTMAS SPIRITS St James Theatre SE1
“I’ll sing of home and love and work,
Of Magna Carta and Dunkirk
And Christmas bells and charity and pride…”
Who is this, melding private and patriotic sentiment to salute Christmas unembarrassed, heart on sleeve? It is Noel Coward writing to a friend, resolving in the depths of the London Blitz to stay put, work on cheer-up propaganda, and finish – for all his misgivings about the theme in such a deadly time – his “ghost play”, Blithe Spirit. On a hunch close to cabaret genius, this gorgeous little show has been devised and drawn from centuries of threatened Christmases.
Its creators are Nick Hutchison, who directs, and musical director Stefan Bednarczyk. Who also plays Coward himself, alternately twinkling and troubled, sitting at his piano or roaming around his Belgravia sitting-room on Christmas Eve, 1940. Behind him is the famous Blitz photograph of St Paul’s rising from the clouds; planes and the crump! of bombfall remind us where and when we are. Struggling with Blithe Spirit, Coward summons up his invented Madam Arcati – the marvellous Issy Van Randwyck in floating garments and green tights – and she in turn conjures the mediumistic maidservant from that play, Edith (Charlotte Wakefield). Between them, without gimmick or explanation, they call up Christmas words and songs from the centuries.
Not least Coward’s own: Bednarzyck’s strength is in not attempting imitation or pastiche of the master ’s delivery but in re-creating them for himself, skilful and expressive whether in the yearning sentiment of London Pride or the brisk humour of “Don’t let’s be beastly to the Germans”. There are Coward letters and diaries too, and that remarkable poem about the bombers, Lie in the Dark and Listen, with its guiltily appalled awareness of the young bomber crews overhead :
“City magnates and steel contractors, factory workers and politicians, soft lysterical little actors, Ballet dancers, reserved musicians – safe in your warm civilian beds, Life is flying above your heads”…
Yet the delight is not all Coward; he and Arcati and Edith are but the conduits , as from the cast flow songs by Maschwitz and Berlin, Novello and Jerome; words by Ogden Nash and Samuel Pepys and Ben Jonson and John Clare and Dickens and that greatest of the world’s writers, Anon. Sometimes you laugh, sometimes hairs stand up on the back of your neck as you channel the fear , frivolity and fragile goodwill of the ever-threatened festival: banned by 17c Puritans, despoiled by greed, redeemed by moments like the Christmas Truce (yes, that’s there too). The brilliance of the presentation and choice is that even the best-known passages – like Scrooge or Dylan Thomas – emerge suddenly fresh and new.
In short, it’s a wonderful piece of theatre, magically magpie and delivered with full heart. And on the tables there are clove-stuck oranges: breathe them in deep, drink mulled wine, it’s proper Christmas.