Russ Hunt's Reviews

Oh, Coward!
devised by Roderick Cook
words and music by Noel Coward

Theatre New Brunswick
March 2005

When I first read the script for this show, I was surprised to find that it was not, as I had expected, a dramatization of some aspect of, or angle on, Noel Coward's work and life, but almost entirely a straightforward compilation of his songs and a few occasional writings. Given the fact that Theatre New Brunswick was mounting a full production, I thought that perhaps there was something I was missing.

Apparently I was wrong. What TNB offered us was a polished, lovely, ambitious, well-lit and pleasantly designed, brilliantly costumed and skillfully performed evening of cabaret. If you like Noel Coward (and I surely do) it made for an extremely pleasant evening's distraction. It was far from clear, however, what we were to make of its being offered as part of a theatre season. Those who like Noel Coward's work would, I feel fairly sure, have preferred to see some of these songs presented in the sort of context Coward designed them for, as parts of his brilliantly funny and wittily satiric plays. As standalone offerings, however, even when offered by performers as brilliantly talented as Patrick Brown, Julain Molnar, and Réjean J. Cournoyer, they inevitably invited our attention as isolated performances, asking us to assess the choreography of this one, the costuming of that one, the elegant delivery of the other, without any thread of structure to which those elements contributed. Samuel Johnson once defined the essence of theatre as the creation of expectation, complimenting Shakespeare on the fact that normally "the end of the play is the end of expectation." Here, however, there is no expectation beyond the assumption that the next thing will have little to do with the last.

What there is of theatre in the show as staged by TNB and directed by Scott Burke is often simply puzzling. The evening begins as almost anti-theatre, with an excruciatingly slow setting of the stage, as the three characters, and pianist Jacqueline Sadler, make what seem almost slow-motion entrances, in silence or near-silence, and the audience waits . . . and waits . . . and waits. And when things finally do get underway, there's no surprise to cap the wait or justify it: the show simply begins, as it might well have three or four minutes earlier. Why this was done remains a mystery to me, as did the opening of the second half of the show, when the somewhat musty music-hall look of the first half is suddenly swept away, yielding to a bright, Las-Vegas nightclub decor and the showy but, as far as I could see, pointless entrance of the newly-costumed Sadler. During this, the piano moved around unaccompanied, as though it were a Terry Gilliam animation.

Musically the show was, as far as I can judge, fine (although the piano seemed actually to be an electronic keyboard in a case designed to make it look like a small upright piano, and its sound left something to be desired). The singers were not miked, and while this posed a problem with some of the more rapid-fire lyrics, especially for people as far away as the balcony, it was a blessed relief from the disembodied voices issuing from nowhere in particular that have come to characterize most live music. Lighting was elegant and precise, and with the exception of one jokey moment when a spotlight seemed to be looking for someone to make an entrance, tasteful. Costumes were remarkably elegant. British accents, I was assured by experts, were spot on.

Although the satiric edge of some of the songs, which often flows almost as much from the context in which they were originally conceived as from the words, was somewhat muted, it was still possible to be engaged with Coward's wonderful ambivalance about the English -- seeing that the artful, condescending elegance of the upper classes was at the same time admirable and ridiculous. Whether this point is one that needs to be made in the twenty-first century is pretty debatable, and perhaps accounts for the script's otherwise inexplicable interpolation of one Cole Porter song ("Let's fall in love") in the second half, and even more the lame attempt to update the lyric ("Elsie Wayne doesn't do it" gets a giggle, but let's face it, it's not an expensive one).

An entertaining, pleasant evening of witty songs, elegantly delivered? Yes. An evening of theatre of a kind we expect from a professional provincial touring theatre company? I have to remain doubtful.

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