The seeds for Noël Coward’s later work are planted in this, his breakthrough 1924 play. But the bitchiness of the first act is bitterly sharp, giving way to something darker and weightier than you might expect from the writer of froth like ‘Blithe Spirit’.
Controlling and in-denial socialite Florence Lancaster (a superb Kerry Fox) could give Joan Crawford a run for her money in the bad parenting stakes. She ignores her cocaine-addicted son, Nicky (an edgy, volatile David Dawson), as she desperately chases the fading memory of her youth and has affairs with younger men.
James Dreyfus hams it up beautifully as catty hanger-on Pauncefort Quentin, while William Chubb digs deep into his thinly written role as Florence’s neglected husband. He and Dawson bring a lovely, understated tenderness to their brief scenes together.
Stephen Unwin’s production picks up after a slow first act that hovers uncertainly between drawing-room comedy and something more serious. Themes of regret and repressed homosexuality swell to fill pregnant pauses.
The cracked, garishly yellow picture frame that hangs over the stage reflects the brittle novelty of Florence’s over-saturated world, fading into the background as John Bishop’s stylish lighting casts shadows over a disastrous weekend in the country when facades are ripped away.
Once the party leaves London we get a master class in acting from a cast who find the genuine pain in early Coward’s occasional over-earnestness and turn the social whirl of his upper-classes into dizzyingly powerful drama. Unlike Florence, the play wears its age lightly. Tom Wicker