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Brighton Year-Round 2020

A Coward Coupling

Brighton Little Theatre

Genre: Comedy, Costume, Drama, Short Plays, Theatre

Venue: Brighton Little Theatre

Festival: ,

Low Down

Directed by Steven Adams, with Stephen Evans Assistant Director. Stage Manager Rosalind Caldwell, ASM Tess Gill, Set Design Steven Adams and Painting Tom and Allison Williams, Set Construction, Cast and Crew. Lighting and Sound Design and, Lighting and Sound Operation Beverley Grover. Costumes Cast and Crew. Caerphilly Breweries supply fake alcoholic drinks. Photography Miles Davies. Till September 26th.


A Coward Coupling? Director Steven Adams extracts two of the lesser-middling of the ten short plays from Tonight at 8.30 from Noel Coward’s 1936 cornucopia – aka Cavalcade Mk 2.

The result for the first play, Family Album is possibly the most disastrous production this already unfortunate play has ever sustained. More, Coward would declare it’s a travesty; of genius. If he didn’t, less (or more) Coward he. Coward meets The Play That Goes Wrong meets Monty Python and a touch of One Man Two Guvnors….

This travesty extends by the way to the Art Deco-lettered programme: gendering roles even when they’ve been cis-gendered and paying havoc with the creative team. Untangling this took about 40 minutes. I’ll never read lighting design the same way again.

This is of course the first BLT production since Lockdown, and in case you think you’ve escaped that for a few moments, think again. This cast and director bring it with them. ‘You’ve had weeks in lockdown to learn that part’ bewails eldest brother Jasper to luckless servant Burrows. You can tell it’s 1893, can’t you? And there’s visors (Burrows) and sudden appearances from ghosts of the future.

The wonder is the conception, the acting and the set – courtesy Adams design values again, an affair of panelled oak and door topped with a Prussian blue wallpaper with twin gas lamps in fuschia studding the walls and a musical chairs of seating. Toast glasses run out, there’s only one. Everything in the way of vases is recruited; at one moment flowers flung out and vast quantities of alcohol thrown down them. In the next play… we’ll come to the alcohol there later. It’s one reason that the cut-glass Coward voices are in the first play guyed mercilessly.

Costumes from veils and dull charcoals and blacks of the first, to the riotous contrasts of forty years on, despite the attribution (find out for yourself) are a credit to all who sourced them. Beverley Grover’s Lighting this time – no you’re going to have to see that for yourself.


Family Album

Set in 1893 (30th February we’re informed here…) a family of siblings with applied servant gather after the father’s funeral, in a spirit of faux piety that unravels with drink. It’s of its time: an attack on Victorian piety and in Coward’s frequent resort in these plays, a revelation, a reckoning through er… unmasking truths.

Mike Skinner’s Jasper Featherways leads off the grief, suggesting in a fine-grained mordancy the responsible elder brother who’s last to crack, except of course the one daughter who stayed behind sacrificed love as we found, to look after her father. This is the quietly restrained but gradually more drink-prone Lavinia of Abigail Smith, quietest, most pietistic. So you might guess what’s coming.

Jasper’s wife Jane, taken by Elizabeth Gibson is increasingly loud – and she starts off with Coward’s parodic Victorian declamation (which the whole plot revolves round vocally) and proceeds to guy it. If you know the novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett (and Coward must have) you feel in Adams’ production it comes to life out of Coward’s throat. The choric lunacy takes on a smack of Berkoff.

Mimi Goddard’s Rachel conveys a beautifully lumbering sister, whooping things up and delicately galumphing through the china – a watchable physical performance.

Chloe McEwan’s French Harriet Winter conveys incredulity as this bizarre post-Balzacian Britishness, the sort of thing you might have seen in France fifty years earlier. Leigh Ward’s Charles, her husband desperately keeps everyone’s glasses filled and frenetically throws flowers as he people-pleases the family to oblivion.

Faye Woodbridge’s Emily Vallance manages to look stunned by events and explode in slow disinhibition as her husband Edward

– Stephen Evans – manages to look imposing yet be imposed upon. It’s a fine study even in this parodic state of family hierarchies and loosened stays.

Tess Gill’s Burrows seems Catarella’s understudy, the hapless policeman in Inspector Montalbano getting bits stuck in doors, opening calamitously, forgetting lines – felicitously done as we’ve seen. It’s blissfully terrible; a crash of a performance as Gill manages to shatter half the house’s crockery offstage. And Gill’s voice….

It’s Smith’s Lavinia who erupts forming the work’s climax. Smith vents forth a coruscating exposé of the father they deeply hated who hounded his wife to death who ensured Lavinia forsook the man she loved to look after him. Today we might wonder at sexual abuse.

If you think you know this play, and nodded through it, do see this. The mix of styles, periods and sheer genre knocks it all into an Arlecchino cocked hat. The only thing by the way that doesn’t seem to appear. Or, sadly, any sign of a dead parrot.


Hands Across the Sea

The second work after the interval is a better play and gets a straight treatment here. November 31st 1936 and Tess Gill’s emerald-dressed Lady Maureen Gilpin (Piggie) tries balancing arrivals, invites and strays as her husband Leigh Ward’s s elegant cut-glass husband Commander Peter Gilpin RN elegantly delegates his wife’s imposed burdens to some other hapless friend: like long-suffering Lieutenant Commander Alistair Corbett Mike Skinner‘s knowing weary but game sidekick to the Commander. A man who can hide the fact he knows his place.

This double-act is as riotous as a fifth chunk of champagne as those fake cocktails flow – and they really do and they’re really drunk. Gill wolfs down Piggie, accentuating her voice again in a parodic yawp cut across by Leigh’s urbane Peter. After all people they’ve invited airily half across the globe might descend, and they do.

Happily Piggie’s friend – Mimi Goddard’s Hon Clare Wedderburn arrives as if she owns the place and phone alongside her companion Bogey or Major Gosling (Chloe McEwan’s elegant soldier) who pursues drinks serving up shocking pink confections.

Alas in the mist of this a husband and wife from the far east – Stephen Evans and Abigail Smith – arrive to be briefly cooed over whilst everyone else tries to work out who on earth they are. Penang? How far from it? It culminates in a shimmying dance as Piggie Peter Clare et al throw desperate questions to each other in a classic Coward lyric gone wrong. Only when Smith in particular exudes scarcely concealed fury do they work out this couple are indeed the Wadhursts. Totally insignificant.

Into this Faye Woodbridge’s hobbling Miss Burnham quietly takes stock; mistaken for the couple’s daughter, she doesn’t leave with them. Wielding her leg injury, she has something for the Commander. If he’ll only give her a little space. Burnham’s not easily cowed or impressed. Elizabeth Gibson’s Walters flits round starting and ending with answering the phone very truculently, taking names and rolling her eyes, in a full flounce of maid’s attire.

Coward is poised here on contempt and affirmation, seduced and repelled by this cut-glass print of the upper crusts who themselves paid the ultimate accolade to the déclassé boy from Croydon: they swallowed him up. The effect for him and in this production, is superbly executed light comedy.

The cast here are superb. Gull, Leigh, Goddard, they’re all impressive and pitch-perfect in a slightly outré version of what Coward meant.

In a summer of online theatre and outdoor revelations, it’s remarkable to return to the BLT and find innovative productions of round-shouldered classics, taking them by the scruff and throwing them straight through our masks. It remains to be added the theatre’s fully compliant and remarkably disciplined from sequencing rows in and out, to a bar with a series of transparent barriers, so drinking bubbles for buddies are formed. Whatever lockdown brings, BLT’s more than ahead and you can enter with confidence. There’s naturally only 30 seats per performance. So be quick.