Noel & Gertie tells the story of the friendship between Noel Coward and his stage partner, Gertrude Lawrence. It’s based on diaries and letters exchanged between the two and is the perfect dose of nostalgic theatre for a leisurely afternoon. But, says LESLEY STONES, it could have been much more up close and personal.
What a terribly genteel piece of theatre Noel & Gertie is. All you need is a butler serving up tea and crumpets at the interval to feel fully ensconced in the 1930s.
Singing actors Jonathan Roxmouth and Taryn Sudding have teamed up to resuscitate this musical revue based on the words and music of Noel Coward.
It’s straight from the days when upper-class English folk talked with frightfully elegant accents and clearly enunciated all their vowels.
The show was written by Sheridan Morley from diaries and letters between Coward and his stage partner, Gertrude Lawrence. It was first performed in 1983 as a period piece full of vintage songs and excerpts from his plays Private Lives, Tonight at 8.30 and Blithe Spirit.
Roxmouth and Sudding perform beautifully and flawlessly, accompanied by Stefan Lombard on a piano at the back of the stage. Sadly that means Roxmouth goes nowhere near a keyboard, so his fans will be disappointed that it lacks the extra touch of flair and flamboyance his tinkling of the keys would add. It’s not a piano with much oomph, either, sounding a little plink-plonky rather than an instrument of gravitas and authority.
At times the show feels a little long, with the second half getting off to a slow start as they play a pair of bickering sailors in a vaudeville act. The pace picks up again with an extract from Still Life, which later became the film Brief Encounter. Then comes the liveliest and most entertaining scene, an extract from Blithe Spirit where a dead wife comes back to haunt her husband and provokes yet another argument.
The revue focuses on the friendship between Noel and Gertie, always close but always platonic. There’s a nice exchange of wit, some lovely singing, and excellent lighting to enhance the mellow mood. Yet the script does little to illuminate the real character behind Coward’s public façade.
Although his lyrics can sweep you away with romance, his private life is barely touched upon. Noel & Gertie would have been the perfect vehicle for sharing more personal anecdotes, but Morley, despite writing a biography of Coward, left it as a glossy tribute that reveals more of Gertie than the man himself.
Coward once told Time magazine that he “act[ed] up like crazy” and did everything that was expected of him as part of the public persona he created – right down to the red silk dressing gown and cigarette holder.
It’s an image that has endured, of course, along with a legacy of songs that are old-fashioned but, for those falling in and out of love, still meaningful.
Noel & Gertie is perfect Sunday afternoon entertainment for literary and theatrical buffs, or the older generation who want to wallow indulgently in nostalgia. DM
*Noel & Gertie runs at Montecasino until 6 January.
Photos by Suzy Bernstein