*from entry on Noel Coward at stagemilk.com
Alistair McGowan wrote for The Guardian of 6 Dec 2010:
“ ‘You’re everything I want you to be – absolutely everything! Marvellous clothes, marvellous looks, marvellous brain – oh, God, it’s terrible!” These words, from the play Hay Fever, are the essence of what attracts me to Noël Coward: the passion, the wit and, above all, the understanding of the beautiful agony of love. I’ve been there. Too often. And, in the words of one of his songs, recently swore: “No, never again!” I’ve since changed my mind.
But until a couple of years ago, my image of Coward was as a smirking, camp man in turtleneck sweaters, responsible for some highly admirable but slightly irritating review songs that would crop up on Desert Island Discs whenever they had an older non-celebrity on, and for indistinguishable plays about posh boys and girls having tea and saying: “Anyone for tennis?”
Then I saw a production of Tonight at 8.30, in Chichester. The passion was extraordinary, the pain, the depth of observation. It could have been written today. I was hooked. A year later, I was asked to direct Coward’s Semi-Monde at my old drama school, Guildhall School of Music and Drama. It is rarely performed – principally because there are more than 30 characters, which makes it expensive for a theatre company. But it’s perfect for a drama school: the students all get showcased and they come free!
I expected them to say: “Why are we doing this old tat?” But they didn’t. Like me, they loved it. The play revealed itself to be a mini-masterpiece, encapsulating what Sheridan Morley said of Coward: “He understood better than anyone the elliptical twin-level technique . . . having a character say one thing but thinking and meaning something entirely different.” This was so much more than: “Anyone for tennis?” The audience lapped it up.
For research, I had read the majority of Coward’s work. I discovered, to my surprise, that he was born into an ordinary family in Teddington, London, in 1899, the son of a humble piano salesman. But Coward’s early involvement with the theatre – he made his stage debut at 12 – soon gave him a window on a different world, one that welcomed him with such open arms that he went on to define it, becoming the epitome of the upper-middle-class man. The fact that this wasn’t his natural world is probably what made him so able to reflect and comment on it and its absurdly strict codes of behaviour. As Marion Whittaker says in Easy Virtue: “Nothing matters if you keep your life straight and decent.” It is the impossible struggle to stay straight and decent – particularly in the face of wonderful, wistful love – that leads to such awful confusion, such pleasurable pain and such fantastic comedy.
After Semi-Monde, I was given a CD of Coward’s songs. Some, the famous ones, I knew well. But I was struck by the lyrical and musical beauty of song after song. I was determined to bring them to a wider audience and, in 2009, planned a show at Edinburgh, Cocktails With Coward, with Charlotte Page. She would sing the songs and I would recite some poems. I realised the poems we’d been drawn to were like little plays: tiny vignettes of ordinary lives. So, with the blessing of the Coward Estate (which always sounds to me like a block of flats in Wapping opposite the Beckett Estate), we divided up their “dialogue” and played them as mini-dramas.
In the touching Honeymoon 1905, two newlyweds head to Ilfracombe in fear of their marriage night and “their desperate chastity”. In the frighteningly sad Reunion, a reunited husband and wife realise the damage that distance and war – “the cruel, separating years” – have done to their relationship. One of my favourites is 1901, an account by eyewitnesses of the death and funeral of Queen Victoria in which the parallels with Princess Diana’s are incredible.
The songs range from the iconic Mad About the Boy (and you thought that was Cole Porter) to the drama of Never Again (ditto), from the spare beauty of If Love Were All to the haunting and rousing We Were Dancing. From the 1920s, there’s the sparkling classic A Room With a View; from the 1960s, the extraordinary, long poem Not Yet the Dodo, in which a couple of upper-middle-class parents have to come to terms with their son’s homosexuality.
My good friend Gyles Brandreth said of the show: “You must tour it! You must add an hour. You must change the title. We came to see Cocktails With Coward – we imagined a free drink and lots of laughter. We didn’t expect to be moved to tears. You should call it The Impossibility and Necessity of Love.”
So we now have a longer version and a new title, Sincerely Noël – although the “impossibility and necessity of love” is certainly the theme of most of the poems and songs. Some, we believe, are being publicly performed for the first time. I hope the Master would like this new show of his.”