Sheridan Morley’s own definition of his Noël Coward compilation was “an entertainment”. It draws on a variety of material from Coward’s plays, sketches, lyrics and autobiography to tell the story of the loving – if occasionally acerbic – professional and personal relationship between Gertrude Lawrence and himself.
Matthew Townshend’s production is based on the one he staged at Frinton’s summer theatre three years ago. With Helen Power as Lawrence and Ben Stocks as Coward, we are taken back to the developing worlds of 1920s and 30s theatre, including music-hall, revues and musical comedies as well as the plays which are probably Coward’s most lasting legacy.
Both Power and Stock are experienced solo performers. She has a good, sweet voice ideal for “Parisian pierrot” and “I’ll see you again”. She dances imogen Fraser’s choreography well, while he knows how to put over a one-liner as well as sustaining dialogue and giving a stand-alone number such as “Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington” the proper cumulative bite.
The set by Martin Robinson adapts easily between the stars’ dressing-room and the variety of different stages on which they played. Stage managers Alyssa Tuck and Ashleigh German double as dressers and scene shifters as required by the flow of the narrative.
Still Life, one of the Tonight at 8.30 playlets is best known now through its filmed adaptation as Brief Encounter. It makes an impact with the excerpt given in this production, as does part of the opening scene of Private Lives and the famous Red Peppers sketch with its squabbling husband and wife team whose variety act is no longer as crisp and funny as it once was.
For me, the weak link in the programme is pianist Jonathan Lee, who’s much too loud and attacks the music without the throw-away insouciance which is the hallmark of Coward’s compositions. The Towngate Theatre is perhaps not the ideal venue in which to stage Morley’s entertainment, which may have led to a degree of over-compensation in sound management.
Noël & Gertie can also be seen at the Spa Pavilion, Felixstowe on 24-25 March, the Brookside Theatre, Romford on 7 April, the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 11 and 12 April and the Key Theatre, Peterborough on 3 and 4 May as part of a national tour which extends to 13 May.