Noël Coward at Wilton’s Music Hall

The evening didn’t get off to a good start.  The foyer of Wilton’s was crammed with people queuing for (or, rather, ‘mobbing’) the ticket desk and the bar was slightly chaotic.  I got the wines, he got the tickets (eventually).  Then we went round the other side of the stairs which used to be one of two queues into the auditorium, and were told to go back round the other side.  Then, when we got to the ticket usher, we had to put everything down and faff about pouring our wines into plastic beakers.  Had the bar bothered to ask, I’d have said we were taking it in, and been given plastic from the start.  I know the place relies on volunteers for some of these roles, and it’s a lovely affair all round, but they need to get a bit of a grip on this sort of thing.  It’s anxiety-provoking enough wondering whether you’re going to get good seats (because it’s unreserved seating) but when you’ve slogged away at work for the day and turn up for your evening out, a scene of chaos and faffing is the last thing with which you want to be greeted.

Anyway, let’s leave all that behind.  We got nice seats.  They’d put out tables at the front, cabaret-style and we were on the front row of the seating that followed, just adjacent to one of those barley-sugar iron columns that contributes to the place’s charm.  It wasn’t a great place acoustically, though.

The setup was a piano and double-bass player, accompanying John Standing performing the songs and presenting snippets of celebrity gossip in a rather unsuccessful attempt to join them into a coherent whole.  He was amplified through two hefty speakers, the piano and bass weren’t, so the balance was curiously off-kilter.  In addition, from where we were sitting, it sounded like the piano and bass were resonating through the wooden platform they were on, muffling the sound and further affecting the balance.  We got used to it, but it did feel like it needed a bit of sound-tech review, as some of the incisiveness of the accompaniment was therefore lost, and it’s a bit difficult to comment on it beyond noting that tempos were generally sound and allowed for words to come across clearly whilst mostly retaining the piquancy of the comedy timing.

John Standing admitted at one point that he doesn’t have the greatest of singing voices.  I’m not about to dissent from that admission.  His opener was a confident and effective spoken rendition of I’ve Been to a Marvellous Party (“…with Nunu and Nada and Nell; It was in the fresh air, and we went as we were, and we stayed as we were, which was hell!“)  He went on to present a number of Coward’s great comic songs:  Nina, that non-dancing señorita from Argentina; Uncle Harry and his frustrated attempts to be a missionary; Mad Dogs and Englishmen; Mrs Worthington and her hapless daughter’s stab at a stage career.  Three of them worked well for me, being The Stately Homes of England, A Bar on the Piccola Marina and, especially, There are Bad Times Just Around the Corner:  Standing caught the inflections very well and timed the comic lines perfectly.  Elsewhere, the performances were OK, but didn’t always quite catch fire for me.

A number of more sentimental or serious songs were interspersed into the comedy, including Someday I’ll Find You and You Were There.  They set up a nicely-lit change of mood, and they were kept short, but they were a bit near the edge of vocal idiosyncrasy.

The stories that linked the numbers together were a curious collection of Noël Coward and John Standing: I like a good Coward anecdote, but I think there were probably better ones out there than presented here.  There was a long story of the corpulent Queen of Tonga being spotted in her carriage in the Coronation entourage, with a tiny man sat next to her.  “Who’s that?”, someone asks.  “Her lunch,” replies Coward.  The problem, for me, is that this belongs to a corner of Coward’s repertoire that to modern ears appears hopelessly crass, chauvinistic and, well, yes: racist.   I don’t judge him for it: the world was a very different place.  However, rehearsing it now in ‘formal public settings’ like this just pushes Coward further back into the past, when his work has so much that is so very contemporary and relevant, or just plain funny.  Not all the stories were like this, but it tended to come across as generally rather indulgent.  Perhaps I’m being mean, I don’t mean to be, and some of it may be inevitable if you hear stories from someone who knew Coward personally.  It didn’t quite hit the mark for me.

But that’s before we get to the one moment which transcended all else.  I would have paid £15 to be present for it alone.  It brought out the Noël Coward who really earns the title ‘The Master’.  One in the eye for the oh-so-clever Mr Sondheim, perhaps.   Leaning against one of the barley-twist columns, lit to subdued perfection with this decaying building all around him, he sang the most stunning, moving account of London Pride I could imagine.  I was transported to 1940s Blitz London; it was remarkable.  Performed with a cockney accent, with all the verses as well as the emotive refrain, it was very special indeed.  I have always loved the piece, since being introduced to it by Maureen Lipman in the TV broadcast of her Joyce Grenfell show, Re:Joyce.  Given its sentiment, could there be a more perfect venue for a performance than a building that survived the Blitz but struggles from day to day?  All else dissolves in the face of a simple, heartfelt song, sensitively performed in such a poignant setting.

There’s a little city flower every spring unfailing,
Growing in the crevices by some London railing,
Though it has a Latin name,
in town and countryside,
We in England call it London Pride.

Every Blitz your resistance toughening,
From the Ritz, to the Anchor and Crown.
Nothing ever could override,
The Pride of London Town.

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