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FringeReview UK 2024

Suite in Three Keys

Orange Tree Theatre

Genre: Comedy, Drama, LGBT Theatre, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, Short Plays, Theatre

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre Richmond


Low Down

Felix the catalyst waiter strums his guitar onstage at the start. As his own thread of a backstory emerges, its reveals touch themes in each of Noel Coward’s 1965 trilogy Suite in Three Keys revived at the Orange Tree by artistic director Tom Littler till July 6th.

A once-in-a-generation masterpiece of revival. This is what we’ve been missing.


Writer Noel Coward, Director Tom Littler, Designer & Costume Designer Louie Whitemore, Lighting Designer Chris McDonnell, Associate Designer Jessica Staton, Sound Designer  & Composer Tom Attwood, Assistant Director Namoo Chae Lee

Casting Director Matilda James CDG, Costumer Supervisor Evelien van Camp, Hair and Wigs Supervisor Chris Smyth, Production LX Matt Carnazza, Wigs Supplied Chris Smyth

Production Manager Pam Nichol, Stage Manager on book Nell Thomas

CSM Jenny Skivens, ASMs Claire Hill, Judith Volk

Production Technician Priya Virdee, Production Electrician Jennifer Garland

Till July 6th  It then proceeds to Theatre Royal, Bath


Felix the catalyst waiter strums his guitar onstage at the start. As his own thread of a backstory emerges, its reveals touch themes in each of Noel Coward’s 1965 trilogy Suite in Three Keys revived at the Orange Tree by artistic director Tom Littler till July 6th. 

It’s a characteristic act of generosity on Coward’s part, towards the often mute servant. Littler though plays this note consummately in sequencing the double-bill of Shadows of the Evening and Come Into the Garden, Maud and the full-length A Song at Twilight. Only the second is a comedy. No wonder the 1965 reviews were so excellent.

So the puzzle is, why are these plays still so little -known? Particularly the last, which can be played stand-alone? Possibly because Coward invokes Ibsen. When We Dead Awaken touches this work with icy fingers, but is on-the-rocks Coward, as we’ve rarely seen him.

Certainly they benefit from being produced together, and that can be a delicious marathon. Though superficially taking on wide-ranging roles, we end with strong family resemblances. In two, Stephen Boxer’s the writer or publisher whose soul has apparently shrink-wrapped to the size of his pen. Emma Fielding’s the very different wife in all three, and Tara Fitzgerald a cross between siren and at least once a more benign revenant from Dürrenmatt’s Visit From the Old Lady, famously premiered three years before Suite. It clearly left its mark on Coward.

It’s all set in the same Switzerland suite, on Lake Geneva around 1965. White furniture of pre-war luxury show Louie Whitemore’s gift for clean unupholstered lines. None of the usual carpeted richness. It works like a clink in the ice bucket. Chris McDonnell’s lighting allows a swathe of moonlight, but is otherwise just as nuanced.

Austro-Italian Felix (Steffan Rizzi) who sings as he strums McCartney’s “Michelle” and Springfield’s  “Hopin’ and Kissin’’ in Italian between shows, is a huge draw. Tom Attwood’s arrangements and compositions pervade elsewhere too. Felix also reveals ambiguity: in the second piece there’s his glum affection for one Renata, and in the last, his male “friend” mentioned to an appreciative closet gay writer. Yet Felix enjoys flirting with Carlotta, the actress. As Rizzi chameleons his responses, you almost wonder if everyone is Felix’s dream: like Lob in Barrie’s Dear Brutus, flecked with the recurring, more sinister character in Britten’s – and Mann’s – Death in Venice.


Shadows of the Evening echoes Present Laughter in one sense, with two former friends discussing the man they both love. But this (still) wife Anne Hilgay (Fielding) has been summoned by the emotionally vulnerable but also tough Linda Savignac (Fitzgerald), for seven years partner of George (Boxer). George ha just months to live, his doctors tell Linda.

They need to work out what to tell him, how plan ahead. A front of faux friendliness for George’s sake swiftly turns far more profound with the help of drinks – a cabinet is almost another character throughout the plays. And recalling – with exquisite Coward detail – how Linda fished wartime truck driver Anne out of the Suez Canal. Fielding and Fitzgerald put up a sort of No Angels sparkle and it’s the comedic highlight of Shadows.

George forestalls them a that point: he already knows, and the rest of the play elegantly turns on where George will stay, and how he’ll live his life clearly “up to the last bewildering second”. Was Anne, who feels a success as] a mother though a sexual failure, in love with George when he left her for Linda? Revived and deeper reserves beyond the habitual Coward stoicism make this a piece not of plot-reveals, but emotional ones.

It’s where Boxer comes into his own, clipped warmth and clear-headed apothegms making him a vehicle for Coward’s temperature-taking of death. Coward played Boxer’s parts at the London premiere, but was already too frail for Broadway.

Rizzi has least to do here, but darts in and out to a presence.


Come Into the Garden, Maud both the slightest and most diverting work features Fielding as the rather luckless role of monster American wife Anna-Mary Conklin, who put herself in the way of marrying her husband Verner (Boxer), when his first love married whilst he was away in the navy. Fielding, in a gone-wrong purple rinse, is a delirious horror-show, not to mention her appearance.

Anna-Mary even, shockingly had an abortion to preserve her figure. And it’s appearances she’s’ obsessed by, becoming a parody of the American hostess anxious to impress a reptilian, lascivious, anti-Semitic prince with the right cigar at the dinner she’s launching. Anna-Mary bullies servants (Ricci) and on the phone, swears at a friend whose102 degrees fever rules them out of the dinner; and not wanting 13 at a table, she banishes her husband to stay at home.

This despite Maura Caragnani (Fitzgerald) distinctly more glamorous than previously,  a British-born Sicilian princess arriving. She entertained them in Rome and proves Verner’s only spot of enjoyment. Anna-Mary even chides Verner that Maud made a paly for him, ad a millionaire, he’s a catch. Boxer charms in a fade way, in his light green attire. At this rate You’d think pity might be Maud’s propelling motive. Since she returns whilst Verner’s been banished. By this time Rizzi and Boxer have danced round learning Italian “It’s never too late to learn a language” though newly-learned metaphors like riding a dolphin via Maud, are a bit reserché. But Felix is grateful for a monster tip to do something with Renata.

There’s a point where Maud asks Verner why American husbands are so put upon. It’s not something immediately occurring to us now, but clearly a wealthy socialite like Anna-Mary makes as good a case for it as Fielding, make a final entrance. Like Shadows, the play is essentially duettings. It’s a sorbet between grave and profound.


A Song at Twilight

Boxer’s performance as the Somerset-Maugham-like writer is matched here in a slow-flaying bravura of three people circling round how much truth is allowed. There’s been jokes about a Dr Borormini throughout the plays – rejuvenating goats-glands were what Maugham underwent. Coward (as in life) won’t let it go, now Maugham is actually dead. Hugo Latymer is free of that impertinence: he’s bolstered by a German wife who marries him (as Verner did Anna-Mary) on the rebound, but knowingly.

Hilde (Fielding) lost the love of her life, a poet, to the Nazis. She’s under no illusions, loyally acts as secretary, indeed translator, even if Hugo ungratefully banishes the use of German – even Goethe’s.

Oddly it’s the language that filters here most memorably in a Heine poem, even beyond Rizzi’s singing (as Felix almost flirts with Hugo when alone, as well as Fitzgerald’s Carlotta Gray, or allows her to flirt with him).

The great act of the trilogy revolves round Fitzgerald’s actress Carlotta, Hugo’s once-lover when 22, and Hugo nearly 40 years on. Carlotta wants permission to use his letters to her, full of beautiful artifice, for her autobiography. She has Doubleday and Heinemann lined up. There’s a shrewd America academic too. Hugo’s flat no is prelude to a second set of letters Carlotta has, obtained from an intimate friend of Hugo’s she nursed.

The cliff-hanger of Act One then leads to a climactic act two. This sis no simple blackmail gambit, but a search for Hugo’s acknowledgment, his soul even. Not of being gay at a time when these always seem poised to fall (referenced in the text). But Hugo’s emotional truth, how he used both women. Each knows things the others don’t. Hilde wants to protect; Carlotta wants a kind of reckoning.

How this resolves, what this says about Hugo skirls in a carousel of recrimination, pleading, coups and reveals. And a large supper wheeled on by Felix, as Hugo brittles dinner with Carlotta, recalling exactly what he gave for her 40 years ago. Which is rather the point.

Boxer is magnificent here, full of waspish ice, just as his own emotions seem stuck in amber. It’s a scintillating script, full of one-liners that sting deep. Fitzgerald, serpentine and tricksy a far a needs, also projects the sincerity in Carlotta, chances she gives Hugo, the actual feelings she pretends she doesn’t have.

One delight of the evening is Carlotta’s lack of acknowledgment of hurt in her crusade for another. Fielding’s almost seraphic calm is comically enhanced rather than diminished by her refusal to stop drinking so she can slam out on truth after another. They’re not resentments, but a solution she now delivers. It has salutary effects. The end too is an act of overwhelming as Boxer drains out the past.

With touches like Felix’s musicianship, Littler has subtly re-instrumented these plays; and heightened Coward’s achievement. This is a once-in-a-generation masterpiece of revival. It would be good to see Suite performed more, particularly Song, rather than anything of the preceding 20 years Coward wrote, which drearily toured in the 2010s. This is what we’ve been missing.