Gay's The Word

Ivor Novello
Finborough Theatre
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What do such stage shows as The Gay Lord Quex, The Gay Divorcee, The Gay Dog, The Gay Cavalier, The Gay Invalid and Gay’s the Word all have in common? The answer is that not one of them has anything to do with homosexuality. They all belong to an era when gay still meant carefree.

Gay’s the Word was the last musical written and composed by Ivor Novello. It opened on 16 February 1951 at the Saville Theatre (on the site of the Odeon cinema in Shaftesbury Avenue). Less than a month later he was dead. He was only 58.  

Novello, a national favourite on screen and stage for 30 years, had been a household name since 1914 when he had written "Keep the Home Fires Burning", one of the most memorable songs of World War 1.

Novello was the epitome of glamour, and famous for his beauty, his profile and his lavish musicals in which he starred and filled Drury Lane Theatre. His funeral drew huge crowds. 60 years on he is all but completely forgotten.

The best thing that has happened to him recently is that the Strand Theatre has been renamed the Novello. He had lived in a flat above the theatre with his partner, Bobbie Andrews, from the early 1920s.

Gay’s the Word (in which he did not appear) was a vehicle specially written for the comedienne Cicely Courtneidge, the ultimate trouper. The musical was never that good and without her it would most certainly have failed. But with her, thanks to her indefatigable vitality, the show was a hit.

Courtneidge played Gay Daventry, a famous musical comedy singer who is appearing in a musical which has flopped and is not coming into the West End. (The first two songs are an amusing send-up of a typical Novello Ruritanian musical.) Gay decides to open an acting school which leads to an embarrassingly unfunny joke about talentless actor students acting badly and acting in a way no bad actor ever acts, a scene which should definitely have been cut.

The book has been adapted by Robert Stirling. The book is still terrible. The dialogue is dire. The lyrics are by Alan Melville who wrote the Sweet and Low revue trilogy in World War 2 for Hermione Gingold and Hermione Baddeley and older playgoers might be able to imagine them singing the song for the drama school teachers.

Sophie-Louise Dann works extremely hard but she isn’t Cecily Courtneidge, the show’s only raison d’être.

Last year the Finborough revived Perchance to Dream which wasn’t really worth reviving but infinitely superior to Gay’s the Word. But would Novello’s other musicals, The Dancing Years (which used to be known to the gay cognoscenti as The Prancing Queers) and King’s Rhapsody fare any better today?

Robert Tanitch