Tonight at 8.30 displays incredible variety, and while it swings from sharp and witty to heartbreakingly human, you never feel unsettled. The transition is like a magician’s illusion and you are never dropped too hard or yanked too swiftly from a moment.
Tonight at 8.30 is a collection of nine (sometimes ten) one-act plays, originally written and performed by Noel Coward in 1936. They are being performed, as they were then, in varying sets of three on consecutive nights. The first night saw Ways and Means, Fumed Oak and Still Life, which together revealed the versatility and surprising depth of Coward’s writing, as well as the incredible chameleon-like quality of the actors.
Although they are based in different times, places and stories, all three plays are performed with the same basic stage background. A shift in exits and windows, and simple but effective stage dressing by the English Touring Theatre, transforms this basic skeleton into the very different worlds that the plays reveal.
Ways and Means, led by Kirsty Besterman and Gyuri Sarossy is what most people would think of as traditional Noel Coward fare: funny, high society and high jinks. This performance has great timing and great physical acting, but in some ways was just a light warm up for what was to come next.
The nasal chattering between Olivia Poulet, Shereen Martin and Kirsty Besterman sets Fumed Oak up as a working class version of that same Coward style, reminiscent of Oscar Wilde, with snippy asides and extreme caricatures. But it’s a ruse. Peter Singh’s eruption in the second scene blindsides you, and while comedy moments remain, they are dark and fuelled by the vengeful spite of a man who has finally snapped.
Still Life stands apart. The contrasts and emotions are so incredibly poignant. Coward’s presentation of little vignettes of a much bigger story gives the impression of an iceberg: crisp and delicate on top, but vast and deadly underneath the surface. The pulsing and expanding unspoken story is so close to the surface that it actually provided the basis for the 1945 film Brief Encounter.
This production is wonderfully refreshing. Moments of nudging humour give you a big hug, while crammed pauses make you ache in isolation. All the actors, but Besterman and Martin in particular, do wonders with Coward’s cleanly constructed words. I just wish I were seeing the other six plays.