Writer: Noël Coward
Director: Trevor Nunn
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
There seems to be a mini-revival of Noël Coward plays in the West End at the moment, after last year’s Private Lives, the current run of Blithe Spirit and now this Theatre Royal Bath production of Coward’s drawing-room comedy of social manners.
Class and social equality – or the lack of either – are at the heartof the story, as the flighty, promiscuous Earl of Marshwood hasannounced his engagement to Hollywood starlet Miranda Frayle. The newshas excited many of the below-stairs staff, desperate for a brush withsuperstardom – but it is the reaction of Moxie, long-time maid to theEarl’s mother, which forms the spine of the play, as she announces herresignation rather than face the humiliation of being in service toFrayle (a vivacious Leigh Zimmerman), who is in fact her youngersister.
Cue a rather convoluted plan to present Moxie as a family friendrather than a servant, dining with the Earl and his fiancée as theirequals rather than below stairs with the rest of the staff. That sucha plan has no hope in hell of ending well is, of course, part of thefun of this variety of farce, and it’s propelled forward by a sterlingperformance by Caroline Quentin. The Pygmalion-like transformationfrom frumpy ladies’ maid to society gentlewoman is one of the greatjoys of this production. Another is Steven Pacey’s effete, WoosterishPeter, who steals many scenes with a raised eyebrow or arch comment.
In his first theatrical rôle, Rory Bremner’s butler Crestwellstruggles at times to portray the posture and stature that the rôlereally needs. Instead, his playing of the character as a slightly lessmanic version of his impression of newscaster Peter Snow means that,when Crestwell’s façade slips revealing a rather coarser characterbeneath, the effect is lessened.
In direct contrast, Patricia Hodge’s Countess is played to perfection,the unflappable humour that Hodge makes appear so effortless helpselevate the whole play. Her determination to preserve the dignity ofher maid and friend Moxie makes the absurd plan all the morebelievable, while simultaneously demonstrating that the two womenwill always exist on different social strata.
Indeed, it is the satire of social class and obsession with Hollywoodcelebrity that helps Relative Values seem relevant today. It’s such apity, then, that director Trevor Nunn chooses to open every new scenewith newsreel footage from 1951, as if to force the play into somestatus as a historical piece. It’s completely unnecessary anddistracts from the pace of the rest of the play. But it also neglectsthat when this play was first written, it was set in the present day.The themes Coward touches on with his trademark deftness and humourwere contemporary concerns, just as they are today. The use ofnewsreel feels like some bizarre form of theatrical taxidermy,attempting to cement the play into a form which does it an injustice.
If you can forgive such missteps, Relative Values is a solid revival.If it doesn’t quite shine as the superb example of the genre that itcould and should have been, it’s nevertheless a charming comedy and anenjoyable evening of theatre.
Photo: Catherine Ashmore
Runs until 21st June