Saturday, 15 September 2012

Blast from the Past

To the Vaudeville on Thursday and a three-quarters empty theatre, to see Jenny Seagrove et al in Noël Coward's "forgotten" Volcano - a play that (as far as I can tell) had never actually been performed before. I expected a 1920s piece, somewhere between the melodrama of his Vortex and the sophisticated comedy of design for living. But this play was written in the mid 1950s and is set on the verandah of a colonial house on a small Pacific island where a group of British plantation owners fall in and out of lust and love with each other. (Special mention here to Simon Scullion's sumptuous set, which immediately pulled me back to the various tropical lands - Brazil, Thailand and elsewhere - that I have lived or worked in.)

The play has not been kindly received - Michael Coveney of What's On Stage being particularly waspish, while Michael Billingon of The Guardian and Fiona Mountford of the Evening Standard teetered on the fence of boredom - and it's not difficult to see why. This is Old Style Theatre, where actohs and actresses enunciate complete sentences clear upper-class English (even if the upper-class tones of the 2010s have shifted somewhat since those of the 1950s) and always wait politely for the other person to finish before beginning their own speeches. Everyone is well-dressed and looks naked at the odd moments they find themselves without a stiff drink or cigarette in their hands. The native servants are never seen, but are either Treasures or Traitors, depending on whether their cooking is marvellous or they have driven away without permission in the plantation landrover. And adultery - real or imagined - seldom overwhelms the stiff upper lip (and heaven forfend that any other part of the anatomy should be similarly stiff). The contemporary world of crumbling Empire and Cold War does not intrude; we are in Somerset Maugham's timeless world where the Old Country is as much memory as reality and where references to flights to and from London seem very out of place.

In other words, Volcano creaks, loudly, and for the first quarter of an hour or so, as widow Adela rebuffs yet again the advances of Casanova Guy, I was more critical than compliant, telling myself that both actors could do a little more to make their characters believable (Jenny Seagrove was competent, but Jason Durr's performance, with directed or self-chosen, was too much of a caricature). But as friends, strangers and Guy's wife Melissa (the excellent Dawn Steele) enter, the pace picks up. Inevitably, Guy turns his attentions to another, waspish comments abound, the Volcano erupts and unexpectedly there is a brief but strong whiff of homoeroticism. My attention was fully held for the rest of the play and I happily watched developments unfold and joined the enthusiastic applause of the minimal crowd when the final curtain fell.

That does not mean I was blind to the play's faults - which other reviewers have helpfully delineated in order to drive away the potential audience. It does mean that I am a sucker for / a fan of British middle-class, middle-brow, middle-century literature and drama - Coward and Christie, Mackenzie and Maugham. I like to retreat into a world where lives are comfortable, order is maintained, emotions are suppressed and Everything Comes Out All Right In The End. And so too, it appeared, does the middle-aged to elderly audience around me. But that audience is in a minority now and Coward's star - with the exception of regular revivals of Design for Living, Hay Fever and Private Lives will continue to wane.

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