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Suite in Two Keys

The Noël Coward Collection
BBC Video
(2008)

Come into the Garden Maud

The first part of Coward's Suite in Two Keys (originally three but only two on the DVD) is absolutely delicious. . The first part of is absolutely delicious. A simple love story featuring a couple in middle age, it is both humorous and moving, owing much to electric performances from Paul Scofield and Geraldine McEwan.

Scofield plays Verner Conklin, a stunningly rich 55-year-old American accompanying his social-snob wife, the Toby Robins' tedious Anna Mary on a European jaunt.

The hour-long comic drama takes place on the evening in Lausanne when the couple are to entertain a deposed prince, driving Anna Mary into ecstasies of anticipation and then desperate panic as her plans begin to fall apart.

Verner's solution to living with this terrible harridan is to drink and observe quietly, as she talks on and on about her ambition and bitchily puts down everybody but the richest and noblest in the land.

Rescue is at hand in the person of "a lady with a past", Anglo-Italian Principessa and glamorous new grandmother Maud (Miss McEwan). The actress is clearly still in wry Jean Brodie mould three years after playing that part in a TV series. She is constantly witty and before too long, seduces a man who needs little encouragement to leave awful Anna Mary forever.

In some ways, this perfectly written piece has the character of Dame Muriel Spark's novels but it is also a fine example of Coward's powers of observation, as there seems little doubt that each of the characters was based on people whom he knew.

Under Cedric Messina's direction, Scofield is never less than perfect as the world-weary but eventually revivified Verner; his female lead is in sparkling form as her character charms a man enduring a living death, while Toby Robins is immaculately irritating.

A Song at Twilight

The second suite, subtitled a comedy but in fact a pretty serious drama, also features Scofield, still in the luxurious Lausanne hotel in 1965, this time opposite Deborah Kerr.

He plays the Coward role, named Sir Hugo Latymer, a prissy English writer with the manner of Quentin Crisp and reputedly based on Somerset Maugham. When we first see him the ageing knight is about to have a "rendezvous with the past".

This appears in the person of Carlotta, a retired actress and former lover, played by Miss Kerr. The third person involved is Latimer's wife of twenty years, solid German Hilde who had once been his secretary and still maintains both roles.

Although dîner à deux seems relaxed and pleasurable, after such a long time, and three marriages of her own, the lady's return was never likely to be merely a social visit. While she relatively graciously accepts her depiction in Latymer's autobiography, the renewed relationship still begins to founder. This becomes inevitable when Carlotta explains that Doubleday and Heinemann will be publishing her own memoirs.

The urbane lady delivers not one but two body blows involving letters that the ageing author had written decades before. While those to her may have been more romantic than he might have wished, others to the real love of his life could be positively damaging to the famous author's "carefully sculptured reputation". So ends the first act of this intriguing short comedy.

Both Scofield and Miss Kerr are outstanding and receive sensitive support from June Tobin in what turns into an acute psychological study of a man who has much in common with the playwright. Remarkably, what should feel dated is absolutely gripping and seems to have as much relevance today as it did 40 years ago.

This wonderful disc fully deserves its recognition as part of what might well become a definitive series. While far less well known than many of The Master's other plays, this pairing first seen in 1982 is a worthwhile BBC gem that will bring pleasure to all who invest in the seven disc set.

Since Noël Coward continues to be a real draw card for producers, it is about time that this excellent double bill was revived in the West End. With opportunities for a couple of big name actors to have great dual roles, it would sell and also show a different side to a man best known for writing arch comedies, not that there are not great touches of humour in these plays.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher