Writer: James Martin Charlton
Director: Terence Mann
Reviewer: Jon Wainwright
There’s not an ironing board in sight in this sparkling and vivacious insight into one of the 20th-century’s greatest playwrights. Audacity abounds, beginning with the very idea of putting words and witticisms into the mouth of Noël Coward, let alone of going behind the public mask. James Martin Charlton’s script lives up to the challenge, and fizzes with intelligence and humour (much of it uproariously coarse) – far from all of which is hogged by the title character (played with great poise and presence by Jake Urry). Both his servant, Cole Lesley (Peter Stone), and his lover, Leonard Marlowe (Josh Taylor), are more than mute adorers or sycophantic sidekicks of the master. They bring their own stories to this triangle of relationships, transforming what could have been merely an enjoyable if slight biographical sketch into something with dramatic substance.
Cole is the faithful, and discreet, servant, as immaculately turned out as his employer, and dedicated to smoothing every wrinkle out of domestic life. We first see him adjusting the rug with millimetre precision, lest its displacement offend the aesthete’s eye. Coward may be fastidious, but he’s also very funny. He’s in the mass entertainment business, after all, and we soon see why he’s so successful: even off-duty, in the privacy of his front room, he’s making us laugh, and he makes us think.
Still, however ordered his life, love is always capable of turning things upside down. And in the England of the 1930s, if it’s the love that dare not speak its name, the stakes are even higher. Gay sex is illegal. Even speaking about it on the phone could get you arrested. No wonder Coward is careful: his network of contacts (he describes himself “as the epicentre of the theatrical world”) is not just for getting his plays produced – they’re also to keep him out of prison. (Alan Turing’s experience at the hands of the government in the 1950s shows that genius itself was no protection.)
He may be cautious in society, but Coward is no more ashamed of his sexuality than he is of the rain. He falls for Leonard Marlowe, an ambitious actor, and he wastes no time in seducing the talented, clean-cut and handsome young man. (Marlowe is based on Bill Traylor, with whom Coward had a relationship in the 1950s.) He doesn’t let either professional ethics (imagine if he were a straight guy auditioning a young actress) or the fact that Leonard is also a teetotaller Catholic get in his way, as the two of them sit side by side on the red Chesterfield casting couch. In the background, gold-painted screens add to the atmosphere of decadent opulence.
Getting into his part, and paradoxically removing his mask, Coward suggests that Leonard imagine he’s a girl: “It will improve your performance.” Taking the female rôle, Coward’s breathless “Kiss me!” brings the reading to a close, without the consummation he devoutly desires. We can barely tease apart the themes of theatrical and sexual performance. Later, Coward petulantly insists that in love as on the stage one needs reciprocation. “I didn’t feel like it tonight” is not much of an excuse, whether in the theatre or in the bedroom. (That Leonard considers Post Mortem his best play is bittersweet appreciation as far as Coward is concerned: it was never performed.)
The final scene adds a satisfying and serious twist. Coward is convinced there will be another war, and, unlike some within English society, he’s under no illusions about Hitler. His affection for Leonard and his contacts offer a way out of being called up to fight, but, for once, Coward is upstaged. Leonard’s moving and shocking story of his father’s experience in the war provides the play with an unexpected conclusion, as we are reminded that coward – used in disgraceful commemoration of a soldier’s sacrifice – has another meaning altogether.