Fortunately, that omission has been corrected by Blanche McIntyre with the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton and English Touring Theatre, and the series of nine plays are on at the Nuffield before heading off on a UK tour ending in Cornwall in July.
The multi-award winning Blanche (one of the Nuffield’s associate directors) describes them as “Coward’s Ring Cycle” a combination of drama and humour, music and misery.
Originally ten short plays, ranging in running time from 22 minutes to just under an hour, Coward quickly realised that Star Chamber was a non-starter, and the other nine were grouped together in three trios. It is this running order that ETT has used for the current tour.
Audiences will almost certainly recognise Still Life, which ends the second set, and was famously extended to create the screenplay for David Lean’s Brief Encounter, one of the most popular films of all time.
Another single survivor is Red Peppers, the story of a husband and wife song and dance act struggling to keep going as Music Hall fades from popularity. It includes Has Anybody Seen Our Ship?, one of the songs always included in Coward musical anthologies.
Twice a week until 24th May, Nuffield audiences are offered the chance to see all nine plays in one day (groups of three are performed on other days until the end of the Southampton run.)
It’s one of those occasions when the total experience is greater than the sum of its parts, building a momentum that comes not only from the essence of repertory company cohesion but from the extraordinary scope and variety of Coward’s writing. Whether he is looking at the oppression of the working classes or the arrogant certainties of the nobility, he captures the poignancy and joie de vivre of the period, the repressed misery and the headlong carelessness of a society crawling out from one war and heading helplessly into another.
The first of the plays is We Were Dancing, criticised in the 1930s as trivial, but here used as a stunning scene setter, lit from real footlights casting shadows on the walls of the versatile set as a whirlwind romance is dissected before its inevitable disintegration. Then comes the most startling play of the nine, The Astonished Heart. Again Cupid is at its heart, but instead of the shallow emotions of the first play, here they are real, scarifying and inescapable, with no happy endings.
Red Peppers takes a scalpel to the illusory spontaneity of show business, with lots of laughs along the way.
The second trio opens with the wonderfully funny Ways and Means, set among the monied classes on an imaginary island, as two penniless gamblers find an intriguing way out of their financial difficulties.
Then perhaps the most dated and difficult of the plays, Fumed Oak, which was probably the closest to Coward’s own childhood experiences. It’s a very uncomfortable look at control and revenge.
Family Album, opens the final trio with a set piece scene – the family in mourning after a funeral. Five siblings are gathered to hear their father’s will and remember his life. At their centre is the unmarried sister, rigid in her determination to honour the dead. But a little madeira, and then a little more, unearths more secrets than the dressing up box can expose.
Hands Across the Sea has echoes of Coward’s 1924 hit Hay Fever, as Piggie Gilpin prepares to entertain some people she met “out east” on her travels, but manages, Judith Bliss-like, to forget and ignore them as her life continues at its usual frantic pace.
It all ends with Shadow Play, an experimental piece in which the central characters try to turn back their lives to the moment they started to go wrong. With its enigmatic ending, it completes Coward’s patterns for life and warnings of danger.
Tonight at 8.30 is an ensemble piece, even if it was created as a vehicle for Coward and Gertie, and this company of nine versatile actors does it proud.
Each has starring moments and supporting roles, and especially memorable are Shereen Martin (recently in McIntyre’s Ciphers at Salisbury) in The Astonished Heart, Still Life and Family Album, Kirsty Besterman in We Were Dancing, Ways and Means and Hands Across the Sea, Orlando Wells in The Astonished Heart (the play I would go back to see), Gyuri Sarossy in Still Life and Ways and Means, Rupert Young in We Were Dancing and Shadow Play, Olivia Poulet in The Astonished Heart, Fumed Oak, Hands Across the Sea and Shadow Play, Amy Cudden in We Were Dancing, Red Peppers and Still Life, Peter Singh in Fumed Oak and Family Album, and Daniel Crossley in Red Peppers, Ways and Means and Cdr Gilpin in Hands Across the Sea.
And then I remembered other moments…
Do take the chance to go to see this wonderful show, which visits Malvern, Richmond, Oxford, Salford, Cambridge and Brighton before its final performances at the Hall for Cornwall in Truro at the end of July.