So you’ve got this character called Florence Lancaster, she is an ageing actress, afraid of her age and needing desperately to be loved. The problem is that she’s played by Felicity Kendal who, it is widely accepted, is charming and lovely and it’s probably a criminal offence not to like her. All this means that how ever well she manages to convince you that she’s Florence Lancaster (and she is both very convincing and good at it) there’s always this voice at the back of your head (okay my head) that says “but that’s Felicity Kendal – we like Felicity Kendal”. As I’ve said it’s largely in my head and almost certainly doesn’t detract from her performance.
I wasn’t entirely sure about Dan Stevens who played Florence’s son Nicky. He was certainly pretty and vulnerable enough and I wouldn’t complain about his acting but I thought some of the easy-to-parody Coward witticisms (brittle brilliant wit with something nasty ready to break out when thing crack up) weren’t delivered well enough. I could imagine that it might have been that fear of slipping into parody that stopped him from taking pleasure in the language and from saying beautiful things beautifully. Another thing that bothered me was that he seemed to change enormously between the first and second acts. I realise that he is supposed to be reaching a crisis about his drug taking and his relationship with his fiancée is breaking down but in the play it’s only two days later and things don’t start to go wrong until act two.
For some reason this three act play with short peppy acts had two intervals lasting a total of 45 minutes out of the two and a quarter hour running time. I might be argued that the 20 and 25 minute gaps were necessary to move the set but the set had a monumental simplicity about it with free standing doorways and staircases set against long black curtains and with only enough furniture to be useful in the scene. Perhaps we were expected to spend the intervals drinking cocktails and having witty, sophisticated conversations.
I seemed to have missed the mildly suggested lesbian sub-plot in the play when I saw it at the Donmar in 2002 but even here it was gentle and entirely one-sided. Also I realise that people have compared the play’s mother son relationship with the same relationship in Hamlet, but I kept being reminded of the Seagull which I saw Felicity Kendal in a decade ago. It is slightly odd to think that the Seagull was only about 30 years old when Coward wrote this play.
I would also like to mention Mah-Jong which people play off stage during the second act. It is not the tile-matching excrescence that which might be called Mah-Jong on your computer but a game, using the same 144 tiles, which is a cross between Gin Rummy played with three packs of cards and Lego. It is a wonderful game and I encourage you to learn it because it will increase the chances of me finding three other people to play it.