02 May 2011
Cowardy Custard - Greenwich Theatre, Saturday 30th April 2011
Review with song and scenes from Coward's plays, presented in a vaguely autobiographical manner.
Richard Sisson (aka The Widow)
Review can be a horribly self-indulgent art form. Noel Coward can also be horribly self-indulgent in the wrong hands. However, when its presented simply by performers who know exactly what they are doing, it can be joyous. I admit that I approached the evening with slight trepidation, and that it took about 3/4 of the first half before I thawed completely towards this show. Partly that was the fault of the show itself - Cowardy Custard is (very) loosely based on Coward's life and all the songs and excerpts from his plays are presented without any frame of reference - you're supposed to roll up at the theatre and be a devotee of The Master, knowing exactly where the quotes come from and what context they are made in. This makes the first hour or so quite heavy going as all the Coward Buffs sit there chortling at the arch cleverness leaving you feeling uneducated. You're not helped by the fact that the first "scene" is a lift from Coward's Shadow Play, which has some very arch dialogue and which is, as far as I could tell, a far-from-realistic piece. The fact that you don't recognise any of the dialogue (Shadow Play is no Hay Fever or Private Lives) or indeed any of the tunes, leaves you sitting there wondering what exactly you are listening to - is it a scene from a play or just rather over-one's-head dialogue inserted into the beginning of the review?
Its not until Mad About The Boy that things start to settle down for the non-Coward buff - at last a recognisable tune! and OMG, its funny. What's more, apparently it was originally written to be funny; its sung by four performers and it gets progressively funnier and off-beat. Its followed by The Stately Homes of England - and suddenly the evening catches fire and you find you're enjoying yourself after all. Cue I've Been to a Marvellous Party and Mrs. Worthington and you're suddenly hitting all the big Coward choonz and laughing fit to bust.
What makes this all the more enjoyable is that you're in the company of Kit and The Widow, sublime raconteurs both, and the inestimable, glorious Dillie Kean (of Fascinating Aida). They're accompanied by two relatively little-known performers who seem to be coming up hot on the rails and give the more established names no quarter - Savannah Stevenson is a pretty, willowy soprano with a very polished style and Stuart Neal dances like a dream but can also act up a storm, has great comedy timing, sings extremely well and (dammit) even has gorgeous dancer's thighs. There's no Director given a credit in the programme, so its possible that this is self-directed by the cast, in which case they're so talented it makes me want to be sick. [news received on 3rd May - the Director is Paul Foster and very good at his job he is too]
Because you've had such a good second half to the first half (if you follow me), you can forgive the fact that once again, the second half takes a while to throw a familiar tune at you. It opens with London Pride (which I knew) and which was given a very contemporary, slightly chilling feel as its intercut with news voiceovers reporting the London 7/7 tube and bus bombings. Another 40 minutes perhaps go by before we're treated to Has Anybody Seen Our Ship?, cleverly followed by a haunting version of Matelot. Despite the fact that I'd never heard Nina before, it doesn't stop it being a complete showstopper, and then its time for Mad Dogs and Englishman and a short medley before the end.
The entire evening belonged to Dillie Kean. If you've never seen her as part of Fascinating Aida then you really have missed out on one of life's big treats. Of slightly uncertain middle years (and, it must be said, wearing frocks with slightly uncertain hemlines and of more-than-slightly unflattering cut), Ms Keane has the type of talent that cannot be taught. She's a natural. She only has to totter onto the stage, pull an expression on a face which can only honestly be described as "comfortable" and the vast majority of people fall about. Combine that with the deadpan delivery of razor-sharp observational humour and, as happened with I've Been to a Marvellous Party, you can bring to the show to a complete halt and have the audience braying for an encore. I would describe her talent as similar to that of the late, great Joyce Grenfell, who could stand alone on a stage delivering a monologue and make it seem filled with people at a party or in a supermarket queue or at an airport. I did wish that her head-mike hadnt been plonked right in the middle of her forehead and covered up with a piece of flesh-coloured tape as it did rather look like she'd had one too many glasses of sherry and had a bit of an accident on the steps. Keane also reminds me of Sandi Toksvig - they both have that same throwaway delivery which leaves you crying with laughter; at one point, The Widow mopped Keane's forehead and she adlibbed "Don't do that to my microphone, dear" just like a favourite, slightly dotty aunt. Fabulous. And when the horn fell off the gramophone - well, she nearly stopped the show again. I don't think anyone corpses quite so hysterically as Dillie Keane.
I did rather wish that costumes had been just that little bit smarter; Dillie's dresses could have been rather better chosen, Ms. Stevenson's second half dress was very raggy around the hem and Mr. Neal looked rather like he had been pulled from a hedge about 10 minutes before curtain up - shirt not pressed, shoes very down at heel and unpolished, jacket just awful, unshaven and bleary-looking. Widow was resplendent in a very smart suit and you could have used his shoes as a mirror, and Mr. Hesketh-Harvey has a very soignee style, making the others look ever so slightly shabby in comparison. I know that touring can be tough on clothes, and that there wasn't a costume assistant credited in the programme but when the subject of your show is Coward, you do really have to look the part, and sadly the majority of the cast didn't.
Having said that, I left the theatre in a far, far better mood than I was when I went in, which is what theatre is for - or should be. We caught this on the last night of the Greenwich run, but its touring until the first week in June so there's still time for you to catch this little gem of a review. In different hands I suspect, however, that it might not be nearly so much good fun.
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