Stars explained: * A production of no real merit
with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not
enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real
life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A
good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely
achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a
great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major
flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic
which lifts theatre to another plane.
Priory Theatre, Kennilworth
JUST the briefest glance at the opening set for Fallen Angels gave one the feeling this was going to be a worthwhile evening.
Baby grand piano, sideboard and drinks, fireplace, curtained window, elegantly arched rear entrance, elegant tea table, chaise longue, paintings on the wall (landscapes, but one looking – from where I sat - like a Modigliani), four varied plants, appealingly decorative (later elaborated into six), subtly angled walls with a sort of quasi-Regency wallpaper.
Planning had gone into all this, as it had into this entire production. Remarkable that all this onstage material left plenty of room for gallivanting. Set Designers were Nigel Macbeth and Richard Poynter, Plus additional cheers for the three-man Props team.
Fallen Angels is perhaps predictable Noël Coward. Husbands fall into a rage about nothing, the past – or presumed past - comes back to haunt rocky marriages, the wives – best friends – have tiffs and then tumble into a major row; the difference between ‘loving’ and ‘being in love’ is demarcated; and everyone has to put up with the pert, know-all maid, who mischievously wraps them round her little finger.
There’s not a lot more than that, but Coward puts his finger on the complete futility of petty arguments and trivial jealousies, as if to underline their complete pointlessness. What they do imply, however, is the growing tedium of a marriage after a few years: the fading of passion (‘It’s so uncomfortable, isn’t it, passion?’) and the aching for something to replace it, as the two wives willingly concede given that ‘rampant ecstasy subsides’.
The husbands make their presence briefly felt: Frederick or Fred (Chris Cortopassi) at the outset and later William (Ben Wakeling), colourfully kitted out for golf which the two of them head off for, relieved to be out and about. This leaves the two girls, Julia (Natasha Lewis) and Jane (Mahalia Carroll) on their own to frolic, interrupted with increasingly hilarious regularity by Jasmine Saunders (or ‘Saunders’, played by Teresa Robertson), the maid.
Robertson is new to the Priory, but what a catch she proved. As Julia awkwardly strums the piano (with a delicious tentativeness: nice Sound Design from Arthur Marshall, with June Curry offering Music Tuition – presumably in how to do it haltingly as well as smoothly) the maid sticks her nose in and goes one – or two – better.
If a song is in French, Saunders knows how to enunciate that much more artfully. She was, as it happens, ‘in the desert with the Red Cross’; plus not to mention, when there are drinks to mix, a barmaid. Critical, judgmental, presumptuously posh-spoken, she potters around the stage – her own domain, as she sees it - nose turned up, as hilariously and snootily as Freddie Frinton.
But the bulk of Act I, indeed of the whole play, falls on the two women, Julia and Jane, played like old school chums who’ve known each other for ever – and still much given to laughter, confiding, suppressed resentment and, at the high points, downright, out and out bitchiness.
Two things helped them shoulder such a weighty amount of text, shifting moods and ear-battering explosions. One was the costumes (Mike Brooks) - beautifully 1920s (Coward first staged it in 1925), not just elegant for both girls but really rather beautiful, and changed for Act 2. Why so very successful? The Priory retains its own wardrobe, clearly full of gems, and has the able hands armed with the keen intelligence to adapt them where necessary. .
The playbill for the original production in 1925
The playbill for the original production in 1925
The other was surely all down to the Director, Linda Lewis, also mounting her first show for the Priory. The moves, especially Julia’s in the early stages, but actually the female characters throughout the evening, even the circling way Saunders pours the champagne (going the ‘long’ way round) were splendidly mapped, natural, apt but also creative. And together with Julia’s striding up and down or Jane’s flouncing, the moves generated the pace, which was beautifully concocted, so that the whole evening, riddled with snide Coward humour, never lost its forward momentumNatasha Lewis’s Julia was something of a revelation. Her facial expressions – eagerness, determination, disappointment, desperation, exasperation, infuriation – seemed to unveil an unending flow of shifting moods. She was funny, edgy, irritable, judgmental, constantly, fretfully on the move, not least when annoyedly trying to reclaim her territory from the impossible maid.
Cavorting with Jane like a pair of giggling schoolgirls (it’s all in the script) or baring her teeth and threatening to evict her chum when they by stages fall out (‘It’s always the same when sex comes up; it’s rotten and beastly and it wrecks everything.’)
– that too turned out to be really quite subtly paced. Lewis gave a treat of a performance, invariably genuinely clever, and most impressive for both its range and its joyous, nervy, edge-of-seat unpredictability.
Mahalia Carroll’s Jane came close to matching Lewis. When they begin to get tipsy, it’s Carroll who leads the way, making a fine job of getting squiffy and clumsy and dopy which was actually rather neatly observed. She has some nice ripostes (Julia: ‘To put it bluntly, we’re both up for a lapse.’ Jane: ‘No, dear, it’s a relapse.’ ‘Several drinks do no harm. It’s only the first that’s dangerous’); and pulls off a remarkable bout of coughing and spluttering (from reluctantly downing Benedictine) that sounded blissfully genuine.
The point is, and the cause of their falling out, all centres round an old flame of both of them, Maurice Duclos. They can laugh about him and alternately relish and dismiss him, and engage in endless chatter about him, but the fact is that both clearly fancied him and have an appetite for the idea of being fancied again.
Edna Best, as Jane, Austin Trevor as Maurice
and Tallulah Bankhead as Julia in the original 1925 London production.
Edna Best, as Jane, Austin Trevor as Maurice and Tallulah Bankhead as Julia in the original 1925 London production.
In fact nothing has happened – the chap, who is expected, hasn’t even turned up yet, though it opens the way to a in the lot of comedy regarding incoming telephone calls and pointless answering of the front door.
One of many highlights of this girlie tussle is when the two get wrapped up in the telephone wire – witty rather than corny because as they get more enmeshed, in a neat piece of dramatic irony, neither of them realises what’s happening.
But when the husbands return from the fairway, they walk straight into this bizarre situation – their wives’ mutual enthusiasm for someone the existence of whom neither man had any idea – and ructions follow. The fact that nothing has ‘happened’ – the men fear the worst – only serves to make these exchanges all the more aggravated, and of course render the men all the more silly.
But while the two husbands made a good job, in their different ways, of being flummoxed, then violently jealous, then positively explosive, it was the elegant performance of Richard Terry as the much maligned and attractively benevolent Maurice Duclos that really gave the edge to this final scene. His refined manner, tender treatment of both women and understanding outlook innocent of all presumption, made this small role the catalyst not for disaster, but for reconciliation.
So – a play of much wit and levity, variety, and a production full of invention, wry humour and amid the human explosions, riddled with audience guffaws. Great fun. To 04-11-16