It says a lot about Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels that it doesn’t appear in that universal compendium of theatrical productions, French’s Guide to Selecting Plays (mine is the 89th edition), nor can it be found, even, in Coward’s biographical slot in Wikipedia.
And yet Salisbury Playhouse has had enough faith in its choice of a production to kick off its new autumn season, to bypass all the other Coward favourites—Hay Fever, Private Lives, Present Laughter and Blithe Spirit among them—to take this step into the relatively unknown territory of Fallen Angels.
Written in 1925, when Coward was only 25, the play centres on two friends, Jane (Carolyn Backhouse) and Julia (Jackie Clune). Their marriages to golfing partners, Willy and Fred, are no longer quite as fulfilling as they once were and they can’t help comparing their staid and rather boring husbands to the glamorous and exciting lover they once shared, the Frenchman Maurice (Gregory Finnegan). An inspired costume, Willy’s droopy plus-fours, reminiscent of the sails of an ancient, abandoned yacht, just serves to reinforce the contrast.
Maurice doesn’t actually appear until late in the second half and he’s had such a build-up in Jane and Julia’s imaginations—and, by this time, the audience’s—that there’s no way, when he finally puts in an appearance, that he could completely satisfy their, or our, expectations. Or is there? Is the power of Jane and Julie’s remembered infatuation such that we are prepared not just to believe, but to share it?
You can see why, in a way, Fallen Angels is no longer as popular as it once was. Of course, a 90-year old play will reflect the attitudes and strictures of its time. The powers that be were only then considering giving women over 21 the vote and then only because, after the part women played in keeping the home front going during WWI, it would have been churlish to do otherwise. Even so, it was controversial.
Then there was the question of the women’s sexual history before their marriages. In an age when brides wore white to signify virginity (not sure what it signifies these days), Jane and Julia would need to keep their premarital sexual adventures very discreet.
And then there’s the structure of the play. Isn’t it more like a short story? There are, after all, no sub-plots and just two dominant characters. We think of Noël Coward as performer, playwright and popular songwriter. Is it generally known that he was also quite a prolific writer of short stories?
So not an easy play to put on in 2015, then. Lengthy scenes with much dialogue and few entrances and exits, if you exclude those of the maid, Saunders. Played with delightfully haughty disdain by Lucy Thackeray, her abilities, from piano playing to perfect French—and you can guess at a whole lot more besides—in modern times would place her employer firmly downstairs in the status stakes.
So is Fallen Angels worth putting on nowadays? Certainly the Salisbury audience enjoyed it. There was almost continuous laughter throughout, so Coward’s witty dialogue still holds good, and the gradual decline, from the first cautious sip through to the casual tipping of the bottle, then the consequent loss of control as the two women succumb to helpless drunkenness shouldn’t have been funny, but it was. Outrageously so.
So yes, with stars like Carolyn Backhouse and Jackie Clune and a director like Jessica Swale, definitely worth resurrecting.
Reviewer: Anne Hill