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This new, speculative bio-drama doesn’t set out to flatter bon viveur British playwright Noël Coward. Here, he’s a damaged, venomous egotist who sits at the centre of 1930s London society like a spider, luring young men with the promise of a glamorous life and theatrical success.
Satisfyingly, writer James Martin Charlton, while fleshing him out, doesn’t strain to make Coward – played with impish cruelty by Jake Urry – sympathetic. Throughout what is essentially a chamber piece between the playwright, his servant and Leonard Marlowe – the handsome, naïve actor he seduces – Coward’s fear of scandal trumps everything.
The dynamic between the cast is the main strength of Terence Mann’s production. They take Charlton’s wordplay and breathe life into it. Where Josh Taylor’s Marlowe – loosely based on one of Coward’s real-life conquests – self-destructs from his affair with the writer, Peter Stone’s servant, Cole Lesley, absorbs his employer’s insults for a life among the stars.
What Charlton’s cattily funny writing skirts around is Coward’s complexity as a playwright. When Marlowe asks how someone who so loudly lauds style over substance could write ‘Post Mortem’ (which focuses on World War I), the script dodges its own question. It also succumbs to speechifying at the end, as Lesley and Marlowe neatly explain their backstories.
Some sharp one-liners can’t disguise the thinness of the plot. But this well-acted, confidently written play never overreaches itself and ends – effectively – with World War II looming on the horizon. Soon, the way of life Coward clings to so tightly will be gone.
By Tom Wicker