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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)