Review: Home Chat by Noel Coward

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A good Noel Coward production is a delicious sweetmeat to be savoured, and this one does not disappoint. Home Chat opens in a homely, book-filled drawing room with man of the house, rumpled novelist Paul Ebony and the twittering Mavis Wittersham, his fawning friend, waiting for the return of Paul’s wife, Janet, from Paris. In a flurry of septuagenarian female energy and appliqued millinery, Paul and Janet’s mothers both arrive, and it is gradually revealed that Janet has put herself in a very compromising position: the train on which she was coming home was involved in a fatal accident, and Janet, though alive, was discovered to be sharing a sleeping compartment with an old ‘friend’ Peter Chelsworth. All the recipients of the news jump immediately to the worst possible conclusion, that Janet and Peter must be having an affair. This appears to be corroborated when Peter’s fiancé, Lavinia, arrives, in tears at her man’s betrayal. When Janet enters thankfully into her own house after her ordeal, she is greeted by a committee of outraged moralists akin to a Daily Mail editorial team.

The action that ensues centres on one of the brightest, sparkiest proto-feminists to be found in English drama. Janet Ebony is a fantastic character. Angry at her family and friends’ refusal to believe that her relationship with Peter is genuinely platonic, she, in cahoots with Peter, nevertheless taunts and teases them with an elaborate pretence that maybe there is something going on. A scene where she and Peter simulate having sex whilst the old ladies listen aghast in the next room is hilarious, all the more so because it must have been outrageous when the play was first shown in 1927. And yet it seems this exciting woman may have to return to her inert marriage to hide from The Scandal on the Train.

Coward stuck up for women, and in Janet’s situation we see the double-standards for the sexes that he often highlighted. Janet’s healthy friendship with Peter is seen as suspicious and socially unacceptable but Paul’s friend, Mavis (a very funny Clare Lawrence Moody) is always welcome in the Ebony home (though not by a discerning manservant who reveals in some of the subtle acting that is everywhere in this lovely piece that he can see through her simpering ways).

Janet is made compulsively watchable by Zoe Waites, a whirlwind of energy and luminosity, who myself and the girls sitting next to me agreed we would like to make our new best friend. The old ladies are divinely eccentric courtesy of Polly Adams and Joanna David. Tim Chipping makes Paul a very plausible stuffy husband, and Richard Dempsey as Peter plays well the sweet, funny male mate with whom any woman would like to share some innocent naughtiness.

Martin Parr directs with great mastery of Coward, with some wonderful fresh touches in stage effects, and one of my favourite things, a manservant character (Robert Hazle) singing Coward songs as he changes the set. A sublime idea in a thoroughly enjoyable show.


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