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A review by Pauline Flannery for EXTRA! EXTRA!

 

Noël and Gertie

 

Photographer: Annabel Vere

by Sheridan Morley

Director/Designer Thom Southerland

Choreographer Stewart Nicholls 

Musical Supervisor Michael Bradley

Lighting Designer Howard Hudson


Producer/Casting Director Danielle Tarento

 

The Cockpit

 

27 Sept – 22 Oct 2011

 

 Noël and Gertie, Gertie and Noël, are as synonymous with style and elegance as haute and couture are bespoke to high fashion. In fact, to many people Coward was the concept of Englishness ‘the first ambassador of cool Britannia.’ And Gertrude Lawrence, despite claiming humble, social roots in which she’d ‘gnaw the head off kippers,’ was in her iconic, white, Edward Molyneux dress, the by-word in chic. When they appeared together in Private Lives, in 1930, both were at the height of their fame. 

The creative team behind the acclaimed production of Parade at Southwark Playhouse are reunited in this revival of Noël and Gertie, Sheridan Morley’s hit play, first seen in the early 1990s with Joanna Lumley and Simon Cadell. It is Morley’s labour of love homage to his godfather, and its angle is Coward’s love for Lawrence, deeply and tenderly expressed in his plays, and especially, in his songs. The delicate interweaving of the professional and personal lives of these two child actors who grew into adult, legendary stars, is itself the stuff of legend; and ‘The Master,’ who in 2006 had a theatre named after him, still has the power to dazzle with a timely internal rhyme, or sharpened observation.  Looked at this way, the froth which Coward characterised himself as - simply a ‘talent to amuse’, in Noel & Gertie is re-positioned showing a talent and his muse. 

Fast-paced Noël & Gertie is a show of contrasting styles and moods which Ben Stock and Helena Blackman, as the eponymous pair, move through effortlessly. It is quite simply, an exquisite gem. The weaves of fine tapestry through Coward’s wit and brilliance in his plays, his sketches, his snippets, his bon mots, even his telegrams, give a glimpse not only of their working and personal relationship, but the context of the theatrical times in which they lived, and, in each element, the talented pair of Stock and Blackman excel. They are not Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence nor Joanna Lumley or Simon Cadell; and neither should they be. The freshness of this revival is that Stock and Blackman have found their own way, never more poignantly or stirringly delivered than in Still Life, later to become Brief Encounter.

Thomas Southerland’s staging is equally superb, making clever use of The Cockpit’s space to suggest stage set, back stage and neutral area. Everything in this revival is done with exquisite thought and taste; nothing is in excess or wasted.

The songs are still crisp and fresh. From the lovely play on words and notes in ‘You Were There‘, or the delicious, satirical rhyme of ‘Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage Mrs Worthington,’ to the haunting lyricism of ‘Parisien Pierrot’, which Coward wrote especially for Lawrence, to the final, plaintive ‘Remember Her. ’ The show’s format is informal; a musical revue, whose presentational, relaxed style belies the complexity and technical challenge of Coward’s words and music. If there is a cavil it is that sometimes it feels like a lecture demonstration, the quality of the performances over-rides this as we move effortlessly from scenes to song to anecdote.

Mrs Patrick Campbell once remarked that Coward’s characters sound like typewriters. Yet in a moment when art mirrored life, Coward developed his distinctive, staccato, vocal style to overcome a stutter and to communicate with his deaf mother. This clipped annunciation, together with the ubiquitous smoking jacket and cigarette holder are typical Coward tropes, and in the wrong hands can appear as parody. There is no chance of this here. The entire creative team play the same mellifluous tune. Yes, it is a by-gone era but who does not look to the Italian masters to learn the technique of drawing?

‘Wit’ says Coward ‘should be like caviar – served in small portions not spread about like marmalade.’ And in this current revival of Noel & Gertie, its edification is star quality plus……..

 

 

Photographer: Annabel Vere

 

The Cockpit
Gateforth Street
Marylebone
NW8 8EH

Through till 22 October, not performing Mondays; 7.30pm, matinees 4.00pm

Tickets £17, £14

Nearest stations: Edgware Road, Hammersmith & City, District, Circle, 
Bakerloo Marylebone: Bakerloo and main line

Buses stopping nearby are:
 6, 16, 18, 98, 139, 189, 332, 414

 

 

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