A stellar cast breathed new life into the sparkling text of one of Noel Coward’s lesser known plays at the Theatre Royal, Brighton this week.
‘Relative Values’ comes wreathed in garlands bestowed by the national press after its premiere at the Theatre Royal Bath.
The play opened at The Savoy Theatre, London in late November 1951 - the year of the Festival of Britain, the exposure of ‘Cambridge spies’ Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean and the Korean War. Shortly afterwards the theatrical world changed for ever when the ‘angry young men’ exemplified by John Osborne expressed their class contempt on the West End stage.
But this vintage Coward displays its wit with a scimitar rather than a baseball bat - one liners are honed to perfection.
What makes this production essential viewing is the miraculous fusion of principal players.
Patricia Hodge is the unflappable, sharp-edged and deceptively clever Felicity, Countess of Marshwood. She’s ably matched by Caroline Quentin who plays her ladies’ maid, Moxie and hands us a picture perfect performance. What Quentin does is translate acting techniques honed for the small screen into an unexaggerated delivery capable of reaching the back of the stalls without losing any of its refinement.
Meanwhile satirist Rory Bremner sustains a disciplined and hilarious depiction of butler, Crestwell.
What unites the three of them, in Coward’s eyes, is their satisfaction with the unbreachable class barriers of Britain up to the 1950s - at all levels they are happy with their lot.
The story involves Lady Marshwood’s delicious derailment of her son Nigel’s engagement to the feckless American movie star Miranda Frayle (the stunning Katherine Kingsley) who has invented a misery-memoir back story. But to everyone’s joy, Frayle hi-tails it back to the US with a visiting actor leaving Nigel to his stables, shooting and country estate.
Director Trevor Nunn explains it’s the contradictions of the 1950s in the aftermath of war that Coward is interested in. He said: “Remember how the 1945 Labour government was overturned and Churchill returned to power as the fear of Communism increased?”
To debunk his own brilliance, Coward himself said: “You ask my advice about acting? Speak clearly, don’t bump into people and if you must have motivation, think of your play packed on Friday!”
But it’s so much more than that! Get a ticket if you can - the play runs until Saturday.