Play, Orchestra, Play at the Shaw Festival (a review)

Jamieson and Turvey2

The Peppers are a bit old in the tooth to pass for a pair of young sailors

After seeing three of them, we can say with assurance that it was an excellent idea for the Shaw Festival to give four of its season’s shows over to Noël Coward’s Tonight at 8:30. The show at the Royal George Theater, Play, Orchestra, Play is every bit as entertaining as the others. 

The three one-act plays that make up Play, Orchestra, Play are quite different from each other: one is comic, one is brutally serious, and one is essentially a romantic fantasy. This is pretty much the same mix as in Brief Encounters, which we loved (see this post), but there is a good deal more music in Play, Orchestra, Play than in Brief Encounters — five songs in all, plus musical interludes between the plays.

First in order is Red Peppers, a slice from an evening in the life of George and Lily Pepper, a vaudeville pair who are are hanging on by their fingernails as the end of that era nears. The Peppers are still working, in cheap regional music halls, but their cross-talk is stale and their act’s not very good.

Jamieson and Turvey3

The Peppers squabble in their dressing room

We meet them on stage, dressed as a pair of sailors singing “Has Anyone Seen Our Ship”; the end of the number is spoiled when Lily (Patty Jamieson) drops her prop as they dance off the stage. As they change in their dressing room (the period costumes include vintage British underwear!), George (Jay Turvey) blames Lily for flubbing her exit, and they start rehashing old grievances.

But they stop bickering, close ranks, and redirect their fire toward the common enemy: the conductor of the house orchestra, the house manager, and another performer, all of whom drop by during the interlude before they go on again. (At some point in his career, Coward himself must have had to rely on unreliable house musicians for tempos; in Red Peppers he settles a score or two. In this production, unfortunately, the orchestra’s just a little too loud, so that we couldn’t catch all the lyrics to “Has Anyone Seen Our Ship” and “Men About Town.” No doubt the Peppers were familiar with that problem, too.) The insults fly around the dressing room; the pugnacious Peppers are shockingly willing to alienate the very people on whom they depend for professional survival. It’s all very funny, and very real.

Noel Coward

Coward

Coward was at the top of the entertainment world when he wrote this play in 1935. But he clearly loved people like the Peppers, who were at the bottom of the profession, for their fierce independence and their commitment to their craft. We met people a lot like the Peppers last winter when we read J. B. Priestley’s 1929 novel The Good Companions, which tells the story of a traveling troupe of perfomers who play small music halls throughout England.

The middle play, Fumed Oak, features the equally vulgar and far less lovable wife, daughter, and mother-in-law of Henry Gow. Fumed Oak is straight drama and has no musical numbers, but this was the play in Play, Orchestra, Play that we liked best.

Henry Gow & wife & child

Henry Gow (Stephen Sutcliffe) does his best to ignore his whining daughter and bitchy wife

The unfortunate Henry Gow (Stephen Sutcliffe) has been stuck for years in a job as a retail clerk; worse, he’s married to Doris Gow (Patty Jamieson again), who long ago tricked him into marriage with the old pregnancy ploy, thereby frustrating his dream of going to sea and seeing the world. “You’re a bad lot, Dorrie,” Henry tells his wife. “Mean and cold and respectable.” It took three years after their “little rough and tumble” for a baby to be born; their daughter Elsie (Robin Evan Willis), now a teenager, is a “horrid little kid,” as Henry says. His mother-in-law (Wendy Thatcher) lives with them in their tiny, noisy apartment and whines and bitches at everyone.

Henry Gow loses it

Henry Gow (Stephen Sutcliffe) declares himself free

During the first part of Fumed Oak, Henry sits silently at his breakfast listening to the females snipe at one another. (Unlike the bickering in Red Peppers, there’s nothing funny about it.) During the second part, Henry carries off an enormously satisfying coup, gives the women what for, and escapes his hellish home. Is this play misognynist? We thought about it and decided it wasn’t.

We wondered what the title of this play meant. Henry Gow says that when Conrad and Kipling wrote about the sea, they “knew there was a bit more to it than refinement and fumed oak and lace curtains and getting old and miserable with nothing to show for it.” When we got home, we looked it up and found that “fumed oak” is oak that has been darkened by exposure to ammonia — not a bad metaphor for Coward’s character.

The show concludes with Shadow Play. Unlike the first two plays, which deal with working class folk, Shadow Play delves into the lives of the rich and fashionable. (Coward was remarkably familiar with people of all stations in life.)

Julie Martell and Stephen Sutcliffe2

Julie Martell and Stephen Sutcliffe as Vicki and Simon in Shadow Play

In Red Peppers, vaudeville partners George and Lily Pepper had only each other to lean on. In Shadow Play, Vicky Gayforth (the exceptionally fetching Julie Martell) and her husband Simon (Stephen Sutcliffe again) are socialites who have forgotten why they needed each other in the first place. Simon is carrying on a notorious affair with Sibyl Heston (Robin Evan Willis again); Vicky is letting an infatuated young man pursue her, but hasn’t yet decided how far to let him go.

After Vicky and Simon have come back from a romantic play, Simon proposes that they divorce. But the desperately miserable Vicky has already taken extra sleeping pills, and the rest of the play is a drug-induced dream sequence, much of it in song, as Vicky relives their early romance. Julie Martell and Stephen Sutcliffe are fine duet partners (as they are in the Shaw Festival’s Sunday in the Park with George this summer, as well). The songs in Shadow Play are “Play, Orchestra, Play,” “Then,” and the melodic and memorable “You Were There.”

The backdrops for each of these one-act plays consist of scenes projected onto a screen (see the picture at the top of this post). These work very well and are especially effective during the fantasy sequences in Shadow Play.

Director Christopher Newton programmed a good many of Noël Coward’s full-length plays while he was the Shaw Festival’s Artistic Director. We hope the Shaw doesn’t take too long a break from Coward after this year. Surely, in a couple of years, it will be time for the Shaw to put on Cavalcade again — what an unforgettable show that was! And we’d really love to see The Vortex.

Emsworth reviews of other Shaw Festival productions in 2009:

John Osborne’s The Entertainer (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Ways of the Heart (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Star Chamber (see this post)
Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Brief Encounters (see this post)
Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten (see this post)

Brief Encounters at the Shaw Festival (a review)

Deborah Hay and Patrick Galligan 2

Love blooms in a railway coffee shop: Patrick Galligan and Deborah Hay in Still Life

The first of the several Noël Coward shows we’ll be seeing at the Shaw Festival this summer, Brief Encounters, was pure unadulterated pleasure, and we look forward to the others. These one-act plays are some of Coward’s very best work, and they’re presented intelligently and sympathetically.

Coward wrote these nine one-act plays in 1935 and called them Tonight at 8:30. He meant them to be performed as three separate shows of three plays each, but didn’t specify how they should necessarily be grouped. This particular show, directed by Jackie Maxwell, consists of a sequence of Still Life, We Were Dancing, and Hands Across the Show, three very different one-act plays that complement one another nicely. Ms. Maxwell directs it herself.

Krista Colosimo

Krista Colosimo is wonderful in the supporting role of Beryl in Still Life

The first and finest of the three is Still Life, a wistful story of a young married woman (Deborah Hay) and an idealistic young married doctor (Patrick Galligan) who meet by chance in an English railway station and let themselves drift into an affair. (Theirs is not exactly a “brief encounter”!) For as little time as we get to spend with them, we come to know the characters awfully well — not only the guilt-ridden lovers Laura and Alec, but also the middle-aged widow Myrtle Bagot (Corrine Koslo — sassy and delightfully vulgar), who runs the station’s coffee shop, her giddy young assistant Beryl (Krista Colosimo — just delightful), and Mrs. Bagot’s admirer Albert (Thom Marriott — marvelous), a porter, who provide comic relief. Working-class romances for Mrs. Bagot and Beryl serve as a foil to the main plot.

In one of our volumes of Coward, there is a pared-down version of Still Life that has only three characters. But the Shaw Festival’s production, with Mrs. Bagot, Beryl, and their admirers, is so much richer. 

Thom Marriott & Corrine Koslo

Thom Marriott and Corrine Koslo in Still Life

We can’t think of any story, novel, or play that anatomizes the stages of a love affair quite so truthfully, painfully, and succinctly as Still Life. With a few deft strokes, Coward gives us the innocent first meeting of the lovers, their discovery of mutual sympathy, their “innocent” time together, their rationalizing, their secret liaisons and the exquisite pain of longing and guilt, and their inevitable confrontation with reality. As the illicit lovers, Deborah Hay and Patrick Galligan approach their roles with delicacy and save the story from triteness. At the end, devastated by the end of her life’s great romance, Laura’s last goodbye in the train station is interrupted by the intrusion of an insensitive chatterbox acquaintance; this painful scene could not have been done better.

Still Life was the basis of a 1945 British movie called Brief Encounter, which explains why this Shaw Festival show is called Brief Encounters.  We were surprised to learn from our daughter-in-law that André Previn has just composed a new opera, also based on Coward’s play and also called Brief Encounter.  It premiered in Houston in early May 2009 to good reviews; see this link. We also recently learned, reading Garson Kanin’s memoir, Hollywood, that Brief Encounter was the inspiration for one of our favorite classic movies, The Apartment (starring Jack Lemmon).

Still Life represents Coward the sentimentalist. We were reminded of (and recommend) a favorite Coward short story, “Mr. and Mrs. Edgehill,” which has nothing to do with romance but which somehow evokes the same mood.

The second play, We Were Dancing, begins with a clever transformation of the set from a railway station to a South Sea island. (There is no intermission between the three one-act plays; instead, a break is taken halfway through We Were Dancing after a big song-and-dance number). This is the least substantial of these three plays in this show, but it has its moments.

Patrick Galligan

The silver-haired Galligan

The play is a sort of light fantasy; Louise, a married woman on a South Pacific cruise (Deborah Hay again) falls in love with a stranger (Patrick Galligan again) while dancing under the stars; they decide to spend the rest of their lives together before they even learn each other’s names. Just before intermission, the show breaks out into a riveting “We Were Dancing,” delivered by a large dance ensemble. The contemporary arrangement of Noël Coward’s song works very well.

Deborah Hay and Patrick Galligan

Deborah Hay and Patrick Galligan in a serious moment in Still Life

The final play, Hands Across the Sea, a satire of the London social scene of the 1930s, is pure farce. It takes place in the London apartment of Piggy (Deborah Hay again), a socialite who has just toured the far East and has met more people than she can remember. Her husband Peter (Patrick Galligan again) is a military officer whose duties are light.

Into their apartment come the Wadhursts (Thom Marriott and Corrine Koslo again). Piggy met them in Singapore and invited them to visit her in London, but she has forgotten their names and doesn’t want to ask. In a side-splitting episode with Peter at the piano, he and Piggy sing in code to each other as they try to figure out who their guests are. The phone keeps ringing, Piggy’s and Peter’s friends keep wandering in and out, and everyone talks at the same time. We were in stitches.

Hands Across the Sea

The cast of Hands Across the Sea

After seeing this show, we pulled out the battered copy of Tonight at 8:30 that we found on eBay last winter and read Hands Across the Sea. To our surprise, the lines, isolated one from the other on the printed page, hardly seemed funny at all. It required a stage, the right ensemble, and the right timing and delivery to bring them to life.

One of the show’s pleasures is seeing the same actors in two or three contrasting roles within the course of a two-hour show. Of these, the transformation of Thom Marriott from railway station porter (Still Life) to philosophical cuckold (We Were Dancing) to staid Englishman (Hands Across the Sea) was the most remarkable. We have new appreciation for his abilities.

Can it be that the ensemble was lip-syncing during the We Were Dancing big production number? We wondered at the time, but couldn’t believe it possible at the Shaw Festival, where it’s often hard to tell whether they’re even using sound reinforcement. Then a Rochester friend who saw this show a few days later said that he suspected lip-syncing too. Say it isn’t so, Jackie Maxwell!

We gave in to celebrity spotting after the show. Sitting in our car in the Festival Theater parking lot, we saw actor Ben Carlson, formerly a Shaw Festival star but now at Stratford, drive up in a small car. After a minute or two, Deborah Hay emerged from the building and climbed in. We’ve read that they’re engaged.

August 18, 2009: We see that the New York Times has noticed that the Shaw is doing  Tonight at 8:30 (see this post), although the writer mostly talks about the history of these one-act plays and doesn’t say much about these performances.

Emsworth reviews of other Shaw Festival productions in 2009:

John Osborne’s The Entertainer (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Ways of the Heart (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Play, Orchestra, Play (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Star Chamber (see this post)
Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George (see this post)
Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten (see this post)

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