Chris Eldon Lee reviews Noel Coward’s ‘Fallen Angels’, which is at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre until Saturday 5th October 2013
You will excuse me if I merely review the middle of this play. Act 1 is a gently amusing set up and Act 3 a cunningly contrived dénouement. It was Act 2 that caused such a Society stink in 1925 – and brought the house down 88 years later.
In brief; firm friends Julia and Jane are a little bored with their marriages and consider themselves “ripe for a relapse”. Both had an affair with a debonair French dilettante whilst still single, and both have received postcards announcing his arrival in London. Packing their husbands off golfing, they await him…opening a few bottles to help pass the time.
What follows is the best, funniest and most original drunk scene I’ve ever enjoyed on stage. I’m not talking slightly squiffy, or even terribly tipsy – I’m talking roaringly, leglessly, four-sheets-to-the-wind, helplessly drunk.
Watching two society wives drinking at home caused quite a stir amongst polite 20’s audiences and critics. How dare Mr Coward suggest such a thing was possible in jolly old England? The Daily Express described the characters as “suburban sluts” (who can afford to hire a maid to clean behind the cooker) and the abuse from others of my profession included the words ‘vulgar’, ‘disgusting’, ‘shocking’, ‘nauseating’, ‘vile’, ‘obscene’ and ‘degenerate’. All of which makes it such a thrill to see today.
Playing paralytic on stage is not an easy job. What personal experience do actors draw upon when they probably can’t remember it? For us, the shock is to see much beloved actresses Jenny Seagrove and Sara Crowe in such riotous, knock-about slapstick form.
As the champagne glasses empty they get progressively pissed – and funnier by the mouthful. It looks like two respectable actresses cutting loose and falling about – but the whole act is tightly choreographed and technically superb. They cling to each other whilst their feet slide from under them; they catapult themselves over the back of a sofa and become hopelessly entangled in a telephone cord. And, rather like the female equivalent of a rugby club dinner, there’s a Wimbledon-style profiterole rally for afters. It’s high-class physical comedy and it had the audience in fits.
It’s a great double act, augmented by one of the most original comedy maids ever written (played Gillian McCafferty) who gets extra laughs with a clever running gag about how she outshines her ‘betters’ at every talent. It’s brilliant writing for women. Coward rightly didn’t sully Act 2 with any men.
It was daring, though, to stage such a scene so early is his career when his reputation was still not secure and upper class Britain was in that brief, happy-go-lucky period between the austerities of World War One and the Depression. Watching in austere circumstances once more, some of the indulgencies of the too, too silly, moneyed toffs in their cream and white art-deco, Grecian-pillared, drawing room rankled a little. This is exactly the kind of theatre ‘angry young man’ John Osborne railed against in the kitchen-sink 50s. But the sheer bravado of Coward’s pen and superb performance skills of the leading ladies left me in a state of awe rather than anger.
Coward was ever a moralist and clearly spotted that the greatest leveller of all in our society is alcohol. I’ll drink to that.
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