A Song at Twilight

Noël Coward
An Ian Fricker production
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, and touring

Production photo

Coward’s final stage play might well be billed as one of his funniest, but I found it to be the saddest comedy I had ever seen. Certainly his acerbic wit is in full flow as the protagonists spar with each other, but the ‘talent to amuse’ concludes with the sobbing desolation of a man who has been living his life as a lie.

The action takes place in a Swiss hotel in 1966 and, in his private suite, Sir Hugo Latymer and wife Hilde are awaiting the arrival of Carlotta, an old flame from years ago, but they ‘parted in a haze of mutual acrimony’. What could be the purpose of this meeting? Is Carlotta hoping to rekindle old passions? Whatever the reason Hilde is determined to leave them to meet alone and orders dinner for the two – the exact romantic meal that they had once enjoyed in the past, although how Hilde knew this is never explained.

As a little aside I have to mention that something which impressed, as well as the expert delivery of stupendous amounts of quick-fire dialogue, was the two managing to consume what appeared to be a substantial meal while still keeping the conversation flowing.

Peter Egan, remembered mostly as suave, smooth and sexy, has discarded this image to become an angry, cantankerous, miserable Sir Hugo, relying on his age to excuse any bad behaviour, and expecting loyal Hilde to manage his life. Belinda Lang’s Carlotta, however, is fresh from America, full of vitality, with a very youthful appearance, and not averse to revealing the slight scars left by her ‘nip and tuck’. No secrecy or misrepresentation for her. The reason for the visit is in her handbag – the love letters from Sir Hugo she received years ago. Could she have his permission to publish them in her autobiography? He is horrified enough at this suggestion, but the bombshell is dropped at the end of act one. There are other letters too, written with passion “to the only true love of your life”. If these came to light Sir Hugo’s lifelong secret would be revealed and his reputation would be ruined.

Matthew Wright’s beautiful set, as you would expect in a Coward play, looks elegantly expensive, the only jarring note being the unflattering outfit for Hilde which at first had me wondering whether she was Lady Latymer or one of the servants, but perhaps this was intentional to show her practical and stolid German origins. She is absent for most of the play, but when she returns she certainly makes her presence felt with an outburst which stands up to the domineering Sir Hugo, with Kerry Peers giving an impassioned performance which brought a spontaneous burst of applause from the delighted audience. There has been a slight hint at his ‘secret’ earlier with his approval of the shoulders of the handsome young waiter (Daniel Bayle), but ‘like an ostrich’ he tries to ignore the attraction.

Those expecting a light-hearted comedy might be disappointed, but while comedy is not lacking, this is a play with more depth of feeling, written by a man towards the end of his life and who seems to be wondering whether would have been better to live a life of concealment or, like Carlotta, to be totally honest.

Incidentally Hilde knew all along about his homosexuality. Wives do tend to know all their husbands’ secrets – I hope the reverse is not true.

Touring to Malvern, Cambridge and Richmond.

John Johnson reviewed this production in Northampton.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor