Noel Coward’s 1930 classic comedy of manners has been resurrected in a glittering production for a new era in MTC’s first play of the 2014 season.
Quite literally in this staging, the plot revolves around former husband and wife Elyot and Amanda, who five years after divorcing and having married new spouses, by coincidence find themselves both honeymooning at the same hotel – with adjoining balconies no less.
The pair soon realise that the flames of separation have fanned the embers of their passion for one another and they promptly desert their new lovers in favour of reviving their tumultuous relationship. Amanda’s lavish Parisian flat then becomes the setting for a violent echo of the disaster that was their former marriage.
Sam Strong’s direction of this extravagant production is likewise unrestrained in its picture of typical English carefree upper-class behaviour. Every element of Elyot (Leon Ford) and Amanda’s (Nadine Garner) conduct is so ‘very, very’ proper, while at the same time being entirely immoral, creating a technicolour picture of an era in which black and white was the norm.
Elyot is quite the careless fop, more concerned with his own interests than the feelings of his lovers, and certainly not those of his new bride Sybil (Lucy Durack). Ford fills Elyot with a blasé arrogance that is pitched perfectly – he would no doubt have attracted Sybil with his sheer coolness, rather than any romantic advance – and recreates the sort of stiff-jawed dandy that typifies the era. Likewise, Durack exemplifies the utterly clingy, ‘Dresden doll’ sort of 1930’s trophy wife.
Garner is a far less obvious choice as Amanda. Sinewy and mantis-like in posture, her high-mannered sophisticate looks like the predator in comparison to her former husband’s new wife, however Garner’s natural leaning towards slapstick clowning softens Amanda and allows the audience to somewhat rally behind her and Elyot’s betrayal of their partners.
As Amanda’s protective and buttoned up new husband Victor, John Leary works hard to make the stuffy chap more empathetic. Leary’s costuming and stature give him the look of a 30’s gangster rather than well-heeled English gentleman, but this misdirection, along with a confident performance, helps lift this otherwise forgettable character.
Matthew Frank has musically directed this cast through a range of retro-style orchestrations of contemporary love songs that are scattered throughout the show. Most remarkable is the ‘carousel’ opening where each of the quartet takes a turn at accompanying their singing on a pair of baby grand pianos, performing a delightfully delicate variation of John Legend’s ‘All of Me’.
Tracy Grant Lord’s set, while spectacular in technical achievement, is slightly muted in its design – perhaps all in cause of making her truly stunning costume designs for Amanda and Sybil stand out in contrast. Even Elyot gets some properly spiffing outfits.
Ultimately, Coward’s script feels like a charming period oddity in today’s context. The flippant way in which domestic violence is portrayed in the script comes across as campy, and the lengthy middle act drags its heels somewhat as Elyot and Amanda nonchalantly dissect conventions of the time. Nevertheless, this is a well-polished production that offers more than a few laugh out loud moments and seduces with its classic glamour.