Tonight At 8:30

Noël Coward
Nuffield and English Touring Theatre
Yvonne Arnaud, Guildford

Gyuri Sarossy and Kirsty Besterman in Tonight at 8:30, Ways and Means

What better way for English Touring Theatre to celebrate its 21st birthday than by producing 21 plays throughout the year, and in one fell swoop it has nailed nine, producing Noël Coward’s Tonight at 8:30 as originally intended by the Master, three per night over three nights and a marathon of all nine on Saturday (with suitable breaks for sustenance).

This is the first major revival of these plays together since the 1930s when they all starred Coward and Gertrude Laurence and were designed as "acting, singing, and dancing vehicles for Gertrude Lawrence and myself".

Here, the cast of nine demonstrate their own versatility, changing characters, mannerisms and voices at the drop of a hat, all within Robert Innes Hopkins’s imaginative settings.

This veritable feast of Coward has been entitled Cocktails, Dinner and Dancing for each group of three plays and it was Dinner on the night I attended, comprising Ways and Means, Fumed Oak and Still Life, the latter later adapted and extended by Coward to become the iconic film Brief Encounter.

Each play is very different, but the theme seemingly running through these three is an impossible situation developing which involves someone leaving—running away even—particularly appropriate in the case of chauffeur/valet turned burglar in Ways and Means, but also very pertinent in the downtrodden husband making a break for it in Fumed Oak and the heartbreaking relationship of Still Life when their innate respectability decides that their illicit passionate liaison has to come to an end.

Although the first is billed as a comedy, none of the plays is happy, but there is a vein of comic moments running through all, some quite cruel as in Fumed Oak when the husband leaves, but not before telling the three whinging and complaining women in the house exactly what he thinks of them.

Director Blanche McIntyre has eschewed the stylised, clipped delivery which was an essential element in original Coward productions, and I think that in the first play this was a mistake. We are in Coward’s world here, a world of heiresses, casinos, villas in the south of France and a brittle artificiality among the participants with no concern for the feelings of others. Beautifully portrayed by the performers, but somehow the comedy aspect fell a bit flat.

What a contrast when we come to Fumed Oak, a working class home in the East End of London—although Coward states that these are his roots “I was a suburban boy, born and bred in the suburbs of London” there is no way I could believe that this was anything like his home life.

The last, of course, is very well known from the film, and it states its case blandly and with no surfeit of sentimentality, yet beautifully and sympathetically performed.

It is unlikely that this ambitious project of producing all nine plays at the same time, and with the same cast, will ever be repeated. Grab the opportunity to see it while you can.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor