Cowardy Custard at the Greenwich Theatre
So, yesterday afternoon, to Greenwich for a romp through the world of Noël Coward in the company of Kit & The Widow and Dillie Keane, plus young talent Stuart Neal and Savannah Stevenson.
Cowardy Custard, knocking on for 40 years old, is an entertaining, but not entirely coherent, survey of the songs and a couple of scenes from the work of Coward, framed by a sketchy story of his life ‘crowded with incident’. The Greenwich Theatre performances are part of a tour in which the above-named cast have revived the piece, duly amended to suit a modern presentation. In particular, a couple of numbers have been cut and medleys shortened. A certain idiosyncrasy is brought into the performance by the particular style and talent that is Kit & The Widow and Dillie Keane. Their names (and faces) are prominent above the title, but that doesn’t do justice to the contributions of Stevenson and Neal. Theirs is a bright, jazz-handsy, style of musical theatre performance, and if it wears just a little by the end, their bright and confident voices (over-mic’d to the point of a slight wince on occasions) certainly do justice to Coward’s lyrical writing. The moods of the piece shift effectively, with interesting, moving and funny interplay between characters in the rapid-fire short vignettes.
High points? London Pride, again, though I am genuinely torn on just how effective were the references to the London bombings alongside the Blitz. Poor Little Rich Girl (which I often find, to quote Coward, a ‘nasty insistent little tune’) was here effectively played between the different cast members. Louisa was played for sombre effect; Mad About the Boy benefitted from multiple characterisations, which always lifts it above the inconsequential ditty sung by Dinah Washington. Conversely, Why Do The Wrong People Travel went for very little and I Wonder What Happened to Him slightly outstayed its welcome. I’ve long since stopped enjoying Mad Dogs and Englishmen, and all but closing the show with it is a major mistake which risks taking the audience into the more diverse and interesting world of Coward, only to send them out into the street with that most ‘obvious’ dimension of Coward whizzing around their mind’s ear. I also question ending with the oh-so-frequently used quote from If Love Were All,
I believe, that since my life began,
the most I’ve had is just,
A Talent to Amuse.”
There is greater darkness in that number than that quote implies, and I can’t help feeling that it’s a little too glib to think that, by reaching for it time and again, you are summing up Coward in his own words. I have a sneaking suspicion that the world – yes, even Coward’s world – is more complicated than that.
The matinee audience made the Friends of Covent Garden look like a bunch of university freshers.
Iolanthe at Wilton’s Music Hall
What unalloyed joy from start to finish. In the picturesque, moody surroundings of Wilton’s, the piano begins the overture to Iolanthe and a group of boys with torches explore a dimly lit wardrobe, find a dusty volume and out of its pages comes make-believe. Gilbert & Sullivan has scarcely sounded fresher. More importantly, with the particularly vibrant creative assault launched on it, G&S in general, and Iolanthe in particular, can scarcely have emerged with such evident innate strength and quality.
The all-male conceit very quickly gets past the ‘ooo, fairies!’ jokes, with the possible exception of the row behind us, who practically had to sit on chamberpots throughout, so pant-wettingly funny did they find every line. What emerges is a lively but sincere performance of a very great work of operetta. Again, as with my last encounter with Iolanthe, I was struck with how modern the text was.
Unfortunately, I managed to lose my programme, so I can’t reel off all the names of those who should be credited with this endeavour. Christopher Mundy sits in overall command at the piano, giving a faultless performance of this fabulous score. Iolanthe, in particular of all G&S (perhaps alongside Yeomen of the Guard) loses something in a piano reduction, as the brass-dominated majesty is drained from such scenes as the entry of the Lords.
The falsetto delivery of Iolanthe and Phyllis and the fairy cohorts is remarkable for its strength and consistency. A fuller countertenor tone, married to a cheeky imperiousness, lent a stunning authority to the Queen of the Fairies, a joy in every scene. The recognition scene between Lord Chancellor and Iolanthe, with the Queen’s intervention, had genuine pathos – and is one of the moments that marked this production out as being a faithful and sincere response to the work, and not in any way a gimmicky or trivial undertaking.
Strephon had a strong, rich voice and a suitably easy-on-the-eye demeanour. The only character I had a few reservations over was the Lord Chancellor, who seemed to lack just the right incisiveness of tone to be able to really get the words of the patter songs across. Some of that may be down to the acoustics of Wilton’s, which, whilst not bad per se, certainly do make the audience work hard.
Choreography was smooth and clean throughout, and added a sense of there being more people on stage for the big numbers than there were, all united in energetic joy.
It continues until the end of next week (7 May, I think). You’d be daft to miss it.