Even before the performance had begun it felt as though we’d been transported to a vibrant party-scene, and that was just in the foyer of the Oxford Playhouse. There was a frisson of excitement in the air, perhaps not quite as hedonistic as Coward’s cocktail-drinking characters in Semi-Monde, but lively, all the same (especially for a school night). But the jazz musicians on-stage as we entered the auditorium calmed things down slightly and were a pleasant way to set the scene before the action. Indeed they continued to entertain the audience throughout the performance, providing a distraction from various, slickly done, scene changes.
The play is set in the lobby of the Ritz Hotel in Paris, spanning a couple of years during the mid-1920s. We witness the ever-changing lives of high society; the bitching, the flirting, the coupling, the affairs, and did I mention the bitching? From the outset I was transfixed; partly by the lovely costumes, hair and make-up, mostly by the witty banter. Coward’s sharp script was performed well by what seemed like an enormous cast. The mannerisms and cut-glass accents evoked the 1920s setting brilliantly, and despite the rather complicated and tangled lives of their characters, it was fairly easy to follow, once I got into the fast-flow of it.
It is, apparently, a play that hasn’t been performed very often – Coward wrote it in 1926 and the first performance was not until 1977. Not having read the text I can’t really say why, but I imagine it’s a bit of a challenge – there are so many things happening, so many different characters on stage at any time, that it needs to be done well, or it could all fall apart. Luckily, Director Carla Kingham was up to the challenge. The set is a character in itself – the lift at the top of a flight of stairs taking centre stage and the double-doors constantly in use with stroppy lesbians, lovers, friends storming through them. And the ever-present cocktail bar, stage left, with its omniscient barman (Hannibal Meath-Baker), always skirting the edge of the action.
There were points that I struggled to hear what characters were saying – especially when the action was upstage. We were sitting to the right of the stage, where the musicians were positioned, so had to strain to see and hear any conversations going on directly behind them. And because the dialogue is so fast-paced it was difficult to keep up sometimes. However, this didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the play. It was fun, and funny, and the audience were clearly up for a laugh, especially when the brilliantly camp Albert Hennick (Barnabas Iley-Williamson) was taking centre stage, and notably when Jerome Kennedy (Miles Lawrence) was giving his ‘I feel wise and ashamed’ monologue.
I would say the one lingering memory I will take away from tonight’s performance was Cyril Hardacre’s (Howard Coase) beautiful rendition of Beyonce’s Crazy in Love, Jazz-style. Worth the ticket price alone.
Aside from the laughs, I did take away a deeper meaning from the play. Life is cyclical, it goes on, and, fundamentally, nothing really changes.