“POSH feminists in drunken orgy” – doesn’t sound much like Noel Coward, does it? Obviously it’s a bit of a stretch to call Jane and Julia “feminists,” although they are undoubtedly posh – and drunk they definitely become in the hilarious second act of this early Coward comedy.
In his portrayal of two still youngish women, who feel totally taken for granted by their pompous, boring, complacent husbands, Coward showed great empathy towards the unbalanced and unequal situation that existed between married women and men. The play was shocking in its day (1925) and the response of the newspapers seems ridiculously over-the-top to us (in 2015). The Daily Express called them “suburban sluts” and other critics fulminated about the play as obscene, degenerate, nauseating and shocking!
Coward also exposes hypocrisy (as he did in his even more controversial play of the same period, The Vortex). Both husbands are shocked at the idea of their wives having liaisons before marriage. When Jane suggests that Willy had pre-marital relationships, he says it is not the same thing at all.
Of course it isn’t!
Fallen Angels is the story of one weekend in the lives of two couples who live in one of those impressive apartment buildings in a good part of London. The husbands, old friends, are off for a weekend playing golf at Chichester. The wives, also old friends, are going to spend the weekend, shopping, going to a matinee, enjoying dinner and a drink. You know, all those things that little women get up to when the men go off for a bit of sport and a few beers.
Except that they aren’t. They have both heard from a former lover, a glamorous Frenchman with whom one had a passionate fling at Pisa and the other at Venice – seven years ago, before they were married (so that’s at the end of the First World War, that blood-stained turmoil that destroyed a generation of young men). It remains the over-arching excitement of their lives and the idea that he is coming to London and that they will see him has them in an absolute frenzy of excitement.
They are sure he will arrive. They get Jane’s eccentric and voluble new maid-housekeeper Saunders (a funny and multi-layered performance by Lucy Thackeray) to prepare a dinner of erotic gourmet delights, starting with oysters, with the champagne on ice. They put on their most flattering evening gowns … and they wait.
After some hours, they hit the cocktails. Then they open the champagne. Then they start on the oysters. Still the doorbell doesn’t sound and the phone doesn’t ring. They have some more champagne. And they get increasingly drunk.
It is very funny and Carolyn Backhouse and Jackie Clune play it for all its worth. Yes, it’s pushed to the limit, and yes, among the grey heads in the audience there were those (male for the most part) clucking their disapproval at the sight of women getting drunk. Plus ca change …
The final act brings not only the returning husbands but also the French lover, and very charming and handsome he is (Gregory Finnegan). Smart, too. Much smarter than complacent Willy (Callum Coates) or bullying Fred (William Travis.)
Director Jessica Swale brings out the wit, the satire, the brittle sophistication – all those characteristics which were to earn Coward the nickname of “the Master.” The pacing is perfect – particularly with the accelerating chaos of the drunken scene .
This is a cast that captures the cut-glass accents of the period, the pain that lurks so close to the surface in two men who don’t understand how the world has changed and two women who actually just want to be loved and treated as people.
The play was written three years before all women over the age of 21 were given the vote. Jane and Julia are women on the cusp of one of the great social revolutions, but still dependent financially on their husbands. Their grand-daughters would go on to have jobs, not servants. Their freedom came at a price but Fallen Angels reminds us, amid the laughter, that it was a price worth paying!
Pictures of Carolyn Backhouse (turquoise dress) and Jackie Clune as Jane and Julia, by Helen Maybanks.