No, No, Noël; Alistair McGowan Fails to Bring Coward to Life

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Noël Coward, Sincerely NoëlAlistair McGowan and Charlotte Page with Warren Wills (musical arranger and accompanist), directed by Brendan O’Hea, Cadogan Hall, London, 14.11.11. (JPr)

This presentation – it cannot really be described a ‘show’ – was first put on at the Edinburgh Festival and also had a season late last year at London’s Riverside Studios and returned to the capital for this one-off evening. This idea for it came to Alistair McGowan a few years ago when – as he explained in a newspaper article – “My image of Noël Coward was that of the smirking, camp man in the turtle neck sweaters responsible for some admirable but irritating review songs and for a number of indistinguishable plays about posh boys and girls having tea and saying, ‘Anyone for tennis …?’ Then I saw a production of Coward’s Tonight at 8.30 in Chichester. Throughout the six short plays, the passion was extraordinary, the pain, the depth of observation. The piece could have been written today; I was hooked”.

Noël Coward’s works comes from a stiff-upper-lip time where human emotions and desires of all kinds were repressed and the feeling of patriotism was high: just think of TV’s Downton Abbey if you will. There are two main strands to Coward’s work that is so full of humour, passion, irony and wit; it is either love – its awkwardness, fear, hope, fulfilment, loss or denial – or a ‘celebration’ of all things British including its class system, jingoistic colonialism and imperialism. Occasionally, his work has a propaganda feel to it similar to those perorations at the end of the Basil Rathbone wartime Sherlock Holmes films we he intones “There’s an east wind coming, Watson, … such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson. And a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind nonetheless and a greener, better, stronger land that will lie in the sunshine when the storm is cleared.”

In his introduction Alistair McGowan promised us a ‘Selection … Collection … a Smorgasbord’ of Coward’s prose, poems and songs. He apologised for using smorgasbord but his “It’s Chelsea after all” brought a chuckle from the audience … but truth to tell that was one of few moments when the audience laughed out loud and while we gently smiled at the evening’s wry charm and earnestness, the evening disappointed and could have been so much better.

How? Well, when McGowan gives us There Are Bad Times Just Around the Corner he uses the voice of William Hague and you can see what a great show this could have been. Unfortunately Alistair McGowan suffers the problem a TV impressionist of an earlier generation had and is more charismatic as the people he conjures up with his voice than he is in his own right. He opens with a few of the impersonations for which he is famous including Will Self, Graham Norton, Louis Walsh and Gary Barlow, but these are virtually chucked away before the evening gets going with McGowan and Charlotte Page splitting lines of dialogue and songs between them, as well as each working solo. Apart from an extended (overlong?) rendition of Not Yet The Dodo when a couple of upper-middle class parents face-up to their son’s homosexuality it felt that we were being given the Noël Coward CliffsNotes rather than the ‘full works’.

Alongside all the better known material, we heard some lesser known works; Honeymoon 1905, with a newlywed couple off to Ilfracombe and fearful of what their married life will bring, and Lie in the Dark and Listen, written as a tribute to the Air Forces defending Britain during the war, were particular highlights. These were dramatized duologues but for Social Grace Charlotte Page channelled her inner-Joyce Grenfell wonderfully when showcased as a hilariously over-enthusiastic fan who Coward encounters. In fact the best moment involved the solo songs from Ms Page, such as If Love Were All, and she sang warmly and with finesse throughout.

Musical arrangements were by Warren Wills who accompanied spiritedly at the piano and made his mark in I’ll See You Again that was heard against the atmospheric sounds of bombing from the bass notes.

Alistair McGowan’s admiration for Coward is admirable and his relevance may indeed lie in how much some of the current generation of social satirists owes to him; the very modern-soundingAlice Is At It Again – about a ‘fly-by-night floozy’ – could have been written by Victoria Wood. As a performer, McGowan should have stuck to what he is best at (I know it might seem as if I needed pantomime) but the overfamiliar balcony scene from Private Lives would have been better if we had experienced it with Prince Charles and Camilla and Mad Dogs and Englishman(here a contemptuous German couple in a Cabaret-inspired vignette) had been given by Sven-Göran Eriksson and Nancy Dell’Olio. He needed to find a character for all his contributions and that would have made it all a true entertainment that would have connected with its audience and certainly would not have detracted from bringing Noël Coward’s oeuvre to true life; in fact it would have enhanced everything.

Jim Pritchard