Waiting in the Wings

Noël Coward
Pentameters Theatre
(2010)

Production photo

It is fifty years next Thursday since this play about the residents in a charity home for elderly actresses opened at the Duke of York's theatre after a brief provincial tour. It was rapturously received by the audience (at least according to Coward) but got a bit of a mauling from the critics.

I don't think half a century has made it seem a better play. Its plot, which centres on the antagonisms between two former leading ladies, is very thin. It touches on the difficulty of giving up one's own home to live in an institution, however nice, on the loss of pride in accepting charitable support and on the hurt of rifts between parents and children, but it does not investigate any of these issues very deeply. What it does do, however, is provide some splendid roles for older actresses (and in Perry a very nice one for Coward's lover).

Then, as now, there were not that many roles on offer for older actresses and just as it must have been a delight to see Marie Lohr and Sybil Thorndike sparring with each other, it is a pleasure here to watch Frances Cuka's imperious May Davenport and Juliet Aykroyd's gentler and tolerant Lotto Bainbridge.

Apart from the dedication of its staff, this isn't like Denville Hall, the famous actors' residential care home: Aline Waites's production makes it much more homely and she deftly marshals her 18-strong cast so that they exit with aplomb even when having to draw a curtain behind them! Audrey Nicholson is particularly delightful as the elegant Bonita, Maggie McCourt a dotty Sarita and Penelope Dudley, a decade or several younger than most of the cast, turns Zelda into a friendly investigative journalist, not at all the monster the residents think. There is a strongly competitive spirit among these characters, the only frail one among them never appears, and perhaps among this cast as well, for there are a couple of players whom I though over-pitched, who became just a touch too actressy even for actresses, but the audience clearly loved them letting their hair down.

David-Lee Jones makes Perry a very youthful assistant to Josie Martin's slightly dykey ex-ENSA colonel who runs the home: it's obvious why he's a favourite with all the residents. Although the emphasis is naturally on the women - some of the other male parts have little more than an entrance - but Coward provides just enough material to mould a full character even for the smallest.

This isn't a musical but it has some songs, which the director contrives to include without getting a piano on the set, and these give the show an extra lift. Towards the end there is a definite feeling that you want to sing along.

Run ends 18th September 2010

Reviewer: Howard Loxton