This is an ambitious production featuring nine Noel Coward plays, presented in three groups of three. You can see one ‘Trio’ of plays a day – or you can do what we’ve just done, and go on a day when all three Trios are played back to back.
Known collectively as Tonight at 8:30, this production comes courtesy of the English Touring Theatre (ETT), and is directed by Blanche McIntyre. It is currently running at the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton, and will then be touring English regional theatres (details below).
My main motivation for attending was that Rupert is in the cast, but he is joined by eight other wonderful actors, and they made for a great ensemble.
The triple bill was an awesome marathon, filled with plenty of wit, humour and drama. There were some plays in which I laughed until I cried, while others were absolutely heart–breaking. All were interesting, even intriguing. There is no doubt that Coward was a clever, observant and witty writer. As Sam Hodges (Creative and Executive Director of Nuffield Theatre) says in the program, ‘where theatre is at its best is when, behind the manners and etiquette and wordplay, lies loss, love, hope and truth. These Coward captures in spades.’
Luckily for me and my fellow Rupert fans, he is in eight of the nine plays – though only briefly in a couple. He gets the chance to really shine in two of them, though.
In We Were Dancing (Trio 1), Rupert plays Karl. He and Louise (the marvellous Kirsty Besterman) are strangers who have fallen deeply in love while waltzing at a party, and start making immediate plans to spend their lives together. This has to take into account Louise’s husband Hubert (Peter Singh), but the three of them strive to deal with the ramifications of this heartfelt emotional moment with honesty and rationality. The results are very funny and occasionally very moving. Rupert gets to play … well, a gorgeous decent man who has suddenly found himself to be a romantic lover. Even while Karl and Louise fully acknowledge and accept this life–changing moment, however, they still need to negotiate the details and the practicalities. Not to mention learn each other’s names. It’s all just delightful – and Rupert sings a charming song as well! He has such a great voice, so subtly expressive and never less than evocative throughout a very long day.
I was interested to read that this is generally considered the weakest of the nine plays – but if it’s played with charm and utter sincerity by actors like Rupert and Kirsty, then how can one fail to get swept along?
In Shadow Play (Trio 3), Rupert is Simon, who is asking his wife Victoria (the impressive Olivia Poulet) for a divorce as a result of his affair with Sibyl (Shereen Martin). However, Vicky has taken one too many sleeping pills, and in her dreams we get the chance to relive her and Simon meeting for the first time, and falling in love, and going on their honeymoon. Another very romantic role, with lots of singing and some dancing, too. Rupert certainly performs the romantic lover beautifully well. Just glorious stuff. Not to mention looking delicious in full evening tog, or a rather magnificent smoking jacket.
Other standouts include the psychiatrist Christian (played wonderfully by Orlando Wells) in The Astonished Heart (Trio 1). He’s coolly dismissive when he first meets his wife’s friend Mrs Vail (Martin), but things take a passionate and ultimately tragic turn.
Red Peppers (Trio 1) was endearing with George and Lily (Daniel Crossley and Amy Cudden) as partners in both marriage and a music hall act. We not only get to see their acts, but also get a glimpse of their backstage life – including Rupert as Alf, the theatre gopher (or callboy) who finds Lily’s costume changes rather distracting.
Ways and Means (Trio 2) was amusing, with Stella and Toby (Besterman and Gyuri Sarossy) down to their last francs and a long way from home. Stella finds a creative and unexpected solution – and I was rooting for them to do so, even though (as Toby declares) they were ‘brought up merely to be amiable and pleasant and socially attractive – that we have no ambition and no talent – except for playing games’.
Fumed Oak was interesting if a tad problematic, and the only play in which Rupert didn’t appear. Still Life was a tad disappointing, though I enjoyed the subplot of Myrtle’s wary romance with the admiring Albert (Cudden and Peter Singh), and the ending had me gasping.
Family Album was charming, funny and moving – while Hands Across the Sea was hilarious. Both are in Trio 3 – and in fact, I think these two, along with Shadow Play, formed the strongest trio. Each of these three plays really packed a punch. Most of the plays were set in or around the 1930s, but Family Album was more of the Victorian era, with its gathering of sons, daughters and their spouses in black mourning garb after their father’s funeral. There was a wonderful mix in this play of music, drama and comedy, with the whole cast involved. Hands Across the Sea was pure comedy, carried admirably by Besterman.
All in all, I’d highly recommend this show. If you’re a Rupert fan, go for Trios 1 and 3 in particular; the first for the utter charm and the third for the wow factor. If you simply want a solid evening’s entertainment, go for Trio 3. Or do the full box set. I can pretty much guarantee there’ll be something to reward you in each and every play.
To conclude: This Tweet from the director says it all!
- 24 April – 24 May, Southampton, Nuffield Theatre
- 28-31 May, Guildford, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
- 4-7 June, Malvern, Malvern Theatre
- 11-14 June, Richmond, Richmond Theatre
- 25-28 June, Oxford, Oxford Playhouse
- 2-5 July, Salford Quays, The Lowry
- 9-12 July, Cambridge, Cambridge Arts Theatre
- 16-19 July, Brighton, Theatre Royal Brighton
- 23-26 July, Truro, Hall for Cornwall
- Karl Sandys in We Were Dancing
- Tim Verney in The Astonished Heart
- Alf in Red Peppers
- Lord Chapworth in Ways and Means
- Johnnie in Still Life
- Edward Valance in Family Album
- Lieut. Commander Alastair Corbett, R.N. in Hands Across the Sea
- Simon Gayforth in Shadow Play
Images sourced from the Nuffield Theatre Facebook page; used with gratitude and respect but without permission.