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Review of Noel Coward’s Home Chat at Finborough Theatre

Noel Coward's Home Chat at Finborough TheatreUnusually, I feel I should begin this review with a few words about the venue. The Finborough Theatre never ceases to amaze me, both in terms of the plays themselves and the staging. The sheer variety and ambition of their productions would do credit to any theatre, let alone one above a pub. The things they manage to achieve in that small room are simply astounding; every time I go up there I feel as though I am in a different theatre. Of all the theatres in which this revival of Noel Coward’s forgotten play, Home Chat, could possibly have been staged, the Finborough is surely the most worthy. Such a small performance area does have its downside, however. A couple of members of the cast seem more used to projecting to the Gods than performing in an such intimate space, with slightly deafening results, and what should have been an effective and atmospheric fog machine effect actually gassed us all and rendered the actors almost invisible for a good few minutes.

Nevertheless, to say Elm Tree Productions do the play justice is an understatement. Director Martin Parr’s production is redolent of Coward; from the period costumes to the decor, from the tiny model train to the brittle, devastating delivery. The small stage is brilliantly arranged to allow swift scene changes with merely a little artful rearranging of furniture, carried out by the footman who tunefully regales us with a medley of Coward hits as he does so. Christopher Nairne’s lighting and Pete Malkin’s sound are original, inventive and atmospheric and, despite there only being one door, entrances and exits are comfortable and naturally contrived.

Typically, the story revolves around a central, flamboyant female character; in this case Janet, a free spirit who is comfortably, boringly married to the comfortable, boring Paul.

When events conspire to convince her entourage that she is having an affair, she decided to liven things up by encouraging them in their misconception, with life-changing results. Light flashes from the rapier sharp dialogue, sparks fly between the duellists, the action darts like wildfire and conventional concepts of morality are challenged. Yes it is all very superficial, but that is one of the charms of a Noel Coward play. However, although we are used to his characters being irritatingly pleased with themselves and with their own cleverness, Janet flounces across the line into insufferable smugness. Her behaviour is appalling, and her attitude towards people who genuinely care for her deplorably cavalier. She treats her loyal friend as a lapdog, her lovely mother as a dim-witted old retainer and her husband as a tedious irritation, and laughs to see the unhappiness that she has caused. There is a moment in the play when she is almost brought to self-awareness, and one hopes for a glimmer of contrition or redemption, but such hope is swiftly dashed when she returns, as superior and patronising as before, and the eagerly awaited come-uppance is sadly not forthcoming.

Zoe Waites does her best with the character, manfully struggling to make Janet winning and mercurial rather than wilful and selfish, but, brilliant though her performance is, she is fighting a losing battle. As the emotional casualties pile up in Janet’s wake, any shred of sympathy we may have felt for her predicament floats away. Most of our pity and fellow-feeling actually goes to Tim Chipping, excellent as the stuffy, honourable Paul, but there is plenty left for Nelly Harker as the bewildered, hurt Lavinia and Joanna David as Janet’s devoted, long-suffering mother. Even the twittering mess that is Mavis Wittersham, superbly portrayed by Clare Lawrence Moody (who seems to have been born to star in Noel Coward plays) is a more sympathetic character than Janet.

There is plenty to enjoy in this production. The wit, the sense of fun, the clever direction and the level of talent in the cast help to make it a very entertaining performance. Nevertheless, the crucial flaw in the characterisation makes it difficult to engage fully with the play, and, sad to say, this is one Noel Coward play which might be better forgotten.

4 Stars

Review by Genni Trickett

The first UK production in nearly 90 years
I am shirking off the chains that have shackled me for so long – I have suddenly come to realise that I am a woman – a living, passionate, pulsating woman – it never occurred to me before.

A unique rediscovery in its first UK production since its premiere in 1927.
Janet Ebony and her best friend Peter Chelsworth are innocently sharing a sleeping compartment when their train to Paris is involved in a disastrous railway accident. Outrage and scandal ensue as Janet’s husband Paul and her fearsome mother-in-law accuse Janet and Peter of adultery. Aghast at their families’ accusations, Janet and Peter decide to take revenge by inventing an adulterous affair…

Written with Noël Coward’s trademark wit and insight, Home Chat is a distinctly modern comedy about female sexuality and fidelity, in a society rigidly governed by decorum and reputation.

Tuesday, 30 August – Saturday, 24 September 2016
Finborough Theatre
118 Finborough Road
London, SW10 9ED