Note: This is a review of the performance on Monday 30th April 2018.
There was a fair bit in the first half of this revival which made me stare, and not in a good way. But the most revealing about what has gone wrong was Miss Erikson's silly walk. This was presumably intended to be hilarious, I just found it baffling. It sets the tone for what follows.
I previously saw this play when the National Theatre revived it in 2007 with Alex Jennings in the lead and directed by the late, much missed Howard Davies. I remember it as being often very funny, but also possessing point and heart. Sean Foley's new version at Chichester is, sadly, none of these things. The dominant theme of the production is physical comedy. Occasionally this is quite funny – but nearly all the gags are victims of being overly repeated – it is indicative that one of the funnier moments in the performance I saw was an ad-lib to retrieve a hat, and even then I've seen funnier ad-libs. I suspect the reason for this approach is that Foley doesn't trust the text. He may even be contemptuous of Coward and the world he depicts (there is a suggestion of that in the exaggerated upper class accents deployed by several members of the company). The text is actually full of pointed lines which depend on nuanced delivery to really strike home and draw the laugh – I have the impression Foley has not encouraged this. Indeed, the very opposite – the majority of the text is delivered at pretty much the same level. Similarly, these characters are actually funnier if they retain a degree of reality – but they are all reduced so much to caricature here that I lost interest in them as people and consequently lost interest in their repeated pratfalls.
No one in the cast really transcends the Foley approach. I'd heard a good report from a colleague about Rufus Hound (here playing the lead role of Garry Essendine) in an RSC show. I would like to see him better directed. In addition to broader problems already discussed the key issue here is that the play depends on a distinction, however slight, between Essendine's on-stage and off-stage personae – Foley evidently doesn't agree with me. This failure to distinguish might work if I had believed that this Essendine could have been packing theatres for years – I did not. It is also not convincing that there is really no distinction between Essendine's more clearly “onstage” moments and Daphne Stillington's audition.
Of the rest Katherine Kingsley finds more subtlety than most as Liz Essendine, but the production
makes little of her fundamental bond with Essendine, removing emotional punch. Tracy-Ann Oberman's Monica has some nice barbed moments. Lucy Briggs-Owen certainly looks seductive in a black evening gown, but the rest of the way the scene is played failed to convince as to why Hound's Essendine gives in and goes upstairs with her.
In advance I'd looked forward to revisiting this play. Occasionally it made me laugh, but overall it was a pretty disappointing, at times irritating evening. One to miss.
Housekeeping Note: It is just, emphasis on the word, possible to get back from Chichester to London after an evening show. The journey involves a change and about 20 minutes wait at Three Bridges, and delivered me back into Blackfriars at just after 1am. The contrast between the lack of liaison between Chichester and public transport and the arrangements made by Glyndebourne is striking. I'd really like to see the Chichester Festival investigate earlier starts, or negotiate with the rail company for perhaps a direct post-show London train a couple of evenings a week.