IN the 1950’s Noel Coward’s standing was at its lowest ebb since he had first burst onto the theatrical scene with his 1924 play The Vortex, many critics declaring that his writing was out of date and out of step with the then modern theatrical moods.
Although plays like Relative Values, Quadrille and Nude with Violin had their followers, after the only modest success of Waiting in the Wings with it star filled cast, Coward had to wait six years, until 1966, for the mood to change and his trilogy Suite in Three Keys, ] from which trio come A Song at Twilight comes, to reinstate him as a playwright, some describing him as an English Chekov.
In fact the style of writing had not changed during those fallow years. The same sharp biting, often cruel wit seen in the classic Coward plays Private Lives, Hay Fever and Present Laughter is still in place, but an added sense of the author being more aware of his own mortality is also present. Those coming to the theatre expecting a light frothy brittle comedy along the lines of those three classic comedies might be a little disappointed, but if they will just give this story of an elderly bigated author, Sir Hugo Latymer, having to face his past and true identity when an old flame, Carlotta, invades the safety of his suite in a luxury Swiss hotel they will find it well worth the effort.
Some younger members of the audience may wonder why Carlotta’s threat to publish letters written 40 years before to his homosexual then lover are so important to Sir Hugo. You have to remember that this play was first produced one year before the Sexual Offences Act was passed in parliament implementing The Wolfenden Reports findings, decriminalising gay sex in private.
But it is not just past indiscretions that this play examines. Carlotta, who has had a fairly successful career in the theatre, wants the ageing author to admit how ruthlessly and selfishly he has used people, including herself and his present wife of 20 years standing, throughout his life. I suspect as originally played, with Noel Coward, Lily Palmer and Irene Worth in the leading roles, there was a sharper, more brittle edge to this play, but directed in a more thoughtful manner by Stephen Unwin this production quietly explores the characters’ true motives sympathetically and skillfully.
Encased in Simon Higlett’s beautifully designed and furnished set, Simon Callow as Sir Hugo, Jane Asher as Carlotta, and Jessica Turner as Lady Hilde Latymer, admirably capture the mood set by the director. They bring that touch of class so essential to any Noel Coward play to their performances, when a point becomes laboured and takes too long to develop the fault is more in the writing than the acting.
A round of applause also for Ash Rizi who seamlessly floats in and out as the waiter giving subtle hints that he is by no means a ‘dumb’ waiter and knows rather more about the other three than he would admit in public.