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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Harold Pinter


  Patricia Hodge and Caroline Quentin/ Ph: Catherine Ashmore

Here’s a puzzle. Why would the eminent director Trevor Nunn choose to mount of a revival of this protracted, revoltingly snobbish and stubbornly unhilarious 1951 comedy by Noel Coward? His recent production of the noxious Fatal Attraction suggests a similar lapse of judgment. But while that exercise in 80s misogyny was entirely baffling, this is perhaps the more monstrous squandering of talent, given the excellent cast that struggles, and fails, to make a squawking great turkey of a show take flight. It’s hard to say which is more depressing – that they’ve bothered to make that effort, or that anyone is prepared to pay for a ticket to this reactionary tosh.
The biggest problem with Coward’s dramatic set-up is that there’s so little at stake. Felicity, Countess of Marshwood (a silken Patricia Hodge) is awaiting the arrival of her son Nigel and his fiancee, Hollywood movie star Miranda Frayle. There’s some consternation about the vulgarity she is likely to bring with her from across the pond, but nowhere does the prospect breed greater opprobrium than in the breast of Moxie, an old family retainer and the Countess’ personal maid (Caroline Quentin). It turns out that Miranda is, in fact, Moxie’s long-lost sister – and the union of an aristocratic family with the relative of one of its servants is unthinkable. Moxie is therefore determined to depart forthwith – which horrifies the Countess, who relies upon her to do her hair, among other apparently essential duties. So the household concocts an unlikely scheme to endow Moxie with a pretend legacy and a smart wardrobe, pretend that she stays on as the Countess’ close friend, and hope the embarrassing connection between the bride-to-be and the below-stairs stalwart goes unnoticed.
It’s a paper-thin premise, and the house of cards Coward constructs upon it would collapse at so much as a sigh. So it’s fortunate that Nunn’s cast lavishes upon the play so much more care, skill and precision than it deserves. Hodge is miraculous as the Countess, a model of elegance and impeccable comic timing. Quentin blusters and flusters with energy and conviction as Moxie, and Rory Bremner is all warm, oozing oil beneath his crusty exterior as the Jeevesian butler Crestwell. There’s a terrific supporting performance, too, from Steven Pacey as the Countess’ nephew Peter, twinkling with a camp sense of mischievous delight as the deception inevitably unravels. But Coward’s invitation to despise Miranda first for being American, and then for being a working-class parvenu in an old-money environment that she has no business to pollute with her plebeian presence, is frankly repellant. And at a time when class divisions in the UK continue to skew progress and dictate availability of opportunity in ways that are anything but fair, and when a government stuffed with toffs has blithely made life harder for many while brandishing the laughable banner of "Big Society," this celebration of the value of knowing one’s place feels anything but funny.


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