I'll Leave It To You

Noël Coward

Logos Theatre

Pentameters, Hampstead

(2009)

Review by John Thaxter

This delightful rarity, happily revived by the Logos theatre company, is the comedy that gave the 20-year old Noël Coward his very first taste of West End success as a playwright.

Set in the immediate aftermath of the Great War it finds a family of youthful slackers and their distraught mama caught short of cash and prospects in the economic downturn. But a mysterious uncle with a life-threatening malady and mining interests in South America is soon on hand to promise his entire fortune to the nephew or niece who carves out the best career and makes good.

The effect is electric and by the time he next puts in an appearance the two boys and their three sisters have become a powerhouse of engineering, Tin Pan Alley music-making, movie acting, authorship and scholastic achievement.

The lightest of light comedies, pre-echoing Coward’s Hay Fever, the play might have gone no further than a try-out at the Manchester Gaiety in May 1920, with Noël himself in the lead, where it ran for just 24 performances.

But Coward’s dazzling wit had charmed Lady Wyndham, whose husband owned the New Theatre. As Mary Moore, she bravely funded a West End transfer in late July, which won first night cheers and excellent reviews but, given a London heat wave, dreadful box office returns.

Indeed by the fourth week and with adamantine economy its thrifty producer halved the stage lighting, plunging the final week of performances into gloom. But it’s also worth noting that this was the first Coward play to be seen in the US, given a Boston premiere in 1923 but not New York, and a successful UK tour by the Noël Coward Company in the autumn of 1932, in the wake of acclaim for his Drury Lane hit Cavalcade.

So much for history. Now, with no skimping on the set or lighting, Logos director Bryan Hands is giving Coward completists and Hampstead theatregoers a huge treat with a strongly cast, beautifully staged revival that creates the sumptuous Mulberry Manor sitting room, designed by Prav Menon-Johansson, on a stage as wide as the average West End theatre, complete with french windows, upstage door, panelled walls and upright piano, plus some lovely period furniture and wall hangings.

Performances include terrific turns by Karin Fernald as the flustered but doting mother and Carola Stewart as her old friend, a flashy Bracknellish matron with a marriageable daughter and an eye on the main chance.

But given that Coward was writing a witty central performance for himself the best lines go to suave Luke Kempner as the piano-playing tunesmith Bobbie, in a silk dressing gown and with a suitably clipped delivery, unwisely in love with Emily-Jane Boyle’s wide-eyed, fortune hunting Faith.

She was originally played by Coward’s collaborator Esme Wynne, typecast as a pretty, self-assured but ‘not over intelligent’ girl. Here their third-act romantic stand-off is brilliantly choreographed as the disillusioned Bobbie ends up flat on his back, while the inaptly named Faith walks out on her, as yet, far from rich suitor.

But the stand-out performances belong to Harry Meacher as Uncle Dan, a James McNeill Whistler figure in gent’s natty suitings, and Natalie Goodwin as his favourite niece Sylvia, a fresh face in silent movies with a dazzling beauty, half Merle Oberon, half Kristin Scott Thomas and with a talent to match.

It was probably not Coward’s intention to give this attractive pair more than an opportunity to shine as dazzling sophisticates recognising each others charms. But as now played they are clearly on the brink of an incestuous but highly enjoyable love affair, with a sexy languor that looks like an audition for a revival of Private Lives.

Romantic comedy performances of this quality deserve your immediate attention because this lovely production is scheduled to end its all too short run on 12th September.