Sunday, 24 August 2014

Monday 24 August 1964

Noel Coward's got up and gone outside to introduce tonight's play, which probably seemed like a good idea before distant dogs started doing their best to interrupt him.  We're about to see a production of the work that brought him overnight fame as both playwright and actor forty years previously (among the things he bought with the money success brought him was "an extravagant amount of pyjamas and dressing gowns").

Margaret Johnston gives a very big performance as a very big character - Florence Lancaster, a great society beauty now in middle age, but steadfastly refusing to give up her youth (which means her constant affairs are now with men the same age as her son), and becoming ever more deluded about herself in the process.  By the time of this version of the play, echoes of Florence had been heard in more grotesque, if less frankly sexual, characters like Norma Desmond and Baby Jane Hudson.  Like them, or Tennessee Williams' heroines, she's easy to read as a dragged-up version of a stereotypical gay man.  Her musician son, Nicky, the "thumping good part" that Coward wrote for himself, similarly seems like a thinly disguised homosexual (he's described as effeminate at one point).  He's played here by Nicholas Pennell, doing the impression of Coward that it must be very difficult not to in the role.

One character who definitely isn't a homosexual in disguise is Florence's friend Pauncefort Quentin (Paunie for short).  As played by Tony Bateman he's an absolutely flagrant one.  Bateman's performance is one of such camp relish that I'd dearly love to see more of him (IMDb lists disappointingly few performances in media that still exist).  Noel Howlett, who appears here as Florence's blissfully ignorant husband David, was Paunie in a 1960 TV version of The Vortex, but it's hard to imagine him playing the character as such an unabashed queen.  Paunie's one of a trio of Florence's friends completed by Bernadette Milnes as the dizzy Clara and Faith Brook as the catty but fundamentally caring Helen.  Helen's the only character who isn't too self-absorbed to notice that Nicky's "a debauched wreck of [his] former self", a consequence of his drug addiction.  But it'll take more than her pleading to make him clean up his act.  Everything comes to a head when, during a party at the Lancasters' country residence Nicky's fiancĂ©e, Bunty Mainwaring (Ann Bell) gives way to her feelings for her childhood friend Tom Veryan (former Thal Philip Bond), who also happens to be Florence's latest boyfriend.  She spies the pair snogging and declaring their love for one another, and flies into hysterics.  The play concludes with mother and son confronting each other and revealing all, she about her lovers and he about his habit.  The blame for Nicky's depravity is laid squarely at the door of his mother's iniquities, echoing the conventional wisdom of the causes of homosexuality.  At the end they promise to help each other change, but it's not all that convincing.

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