Thursday, 24 July 2014

Theatre review: This Was A Man

Among the plays the Finborough unearths that haven't been performed for decades, there's the odd one that hasn't been performed at all, at least not in this country. That's how they can produce the UK premiere of a play by a beloved, long-dead author: Noël Coward's This Was A Man was banned in 1925 for its flippant approach to marital infidelity, and ended up getting its first outing on Broadway instead. By the time the Lord Chamberlain's office had lost the power to ban plays, this one was long-forgotten, so Belinda Lang's is the first production to dig it up in decades. Edward (Jamie De Courcey) is an artist who's started to get some success with his portraits of society women in uncomfortable poses (it makes them feel like they've got their money's worth.) But he's not happy, because his wife Carol (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) has been carrying out a string of affairs, often in public.

In an attempt to shame Carol, Edward's best friend, the rakish Evelyn (Robert Portal) invites her to dinner at his flat with a revenge plan in mind. But what's meant to be a fake seduction goes a bit wrong; and Edward himself turns out not to be quite as blameless, as he once had an affair with Zoe (Georgina Rylance.)

All this sleeping around was unbearably risqué in 1925 (the general theme that if a woman misbehaves it's because you're not knocking her around enough was, of course, fine,) so it's not the play's fault that it doesn't have the same shock value in 2014. But without it I found there's not a huge deal left to make This Was A Man stand out. Arguably, Coward is a writer whose work can border on self-parody, and at times that's what this feels like. Evelyn slapping Carol then, when she objects, announcing "you're hysterical, have a brandy" seems like Paul Whitehouse should have written it. Evelyn himself is such a cardboard "cad" character that if you based a drinking game around every time someone called him that you'd die of alcohol poisoning; and by the end Portal's pronunciation had got so clipped he was morphing into Steven Toast before my very eyes.

But if the drama doesn't deliver, at least Coward peppers it with some of his trademark one-liners, a particularly acidic but funny collection here. And Lang's cast sticking to quite a traditional performance style means those lines are well-served. There's obviously a reason there was no hurry to bring this to the stage once it became legal to, and while it has its merits This Was A Man largely serves as a curiosity rather than a satisfying piece all told.

This Was A Man by Noël Coward is booking until the 2nd of August at the Finborough Theatre (returns only.)

Running time: 2 hours including interval.

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