Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Theatre review: Home Chat

I'm on the record as not being as convinced of Noël Coward's enduring genius as so many people seem to be, but that doesn't mean I haven't had some decent evenings at his plays - even, as it turns out, at one so little-regarded that it hasn't been seen on a London stage since its premiere in 1927. Home Chat is a light comedy about a lucky escape with an unexpected downside, and one surprisingly sympathetic to a woman with a mind of her own (there is the usual suggestion that women need a slap now and then to keep them in line because it's still Noël Coward and he's awful that way, but at least it's not done as a gag.) Martin Parr's production opens dramatically (thanks to lighting by Christopher Nairne and sound design by Pete Malkin) with a fatal train crash in France. One sleeper carriage is particularly wrecked, so much so that the miraculous escape of two English passengers makes the papers. But as Janet Ebony (Zoë Waites) was sharing the compartment with Peter (Richard Dempsey,) her friend since childhood but definitely not her husband, tongues quickly start to wag back home.

By the time Janet arrives back in England she finds her husband Paul (Tim Chipping) has already had a crisis meeting with both his and her mothers (Polly Adams and Joanna David in nice quietly shocked, tea-drinking form) to discuss what is clearly a case of infidelity.

Except it isn't, and what offends Janet even more than the assumption is the fact that Paul rushes to "magnanimously" forgive her before actually establishing whether there's anything to forgive. Instead of taking it on the chin, Janet plays up to everyone's low expectations - she and Peter pretend the affair is real, and in the process everyone else in their lives reveals a bit more than they had meant to. Paul's eagerness to accept that Janet has cheated on him makes particular sense when his assistant Mavis (Clare Lawrence Moody,) who's always been obviously in love with him, finally makes her move.

Coward is very insistent on his point about people instantly assuming the worst about others, but it doesn't feel overly laboured as he's made the whole structure of the story about the accused couple trying to laugh it off and being repeatedly misinterpreted. Parr keeps his production decidedly old-fashioned, with the cast speaking in the clipped upper-class tones the playwright himself was famous for; Robert Hazle, playing various butlers, performs Coward songs to cover the scene changes. As one of my problems with Coward is that productions sometimes assume a universality I don't think he actually has, I approve of keeping him within his original context and style like this.

It means the play remains light and funny, and as Janet meets the handsome young Major Alec Stone (Philip Correia,) she might actually be able to turn her husband's hypocrisy to her own advantage. "Rediscoveries" tend to split between the surprisingly good and those that have obviously been "lost" for a reason, and Home Chat falls comfortably into the former category, not a piece of particularly great depth but an entertaining - and, in its day, surely mildly subversive - way to spend an evening.

Home Chat by Noël Coward is booking until the 24th of September at the Finborough Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Robert Workman

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