Relative Values

Theatre, Drama
2 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

2 out of 5 stars

Neil Morrissey will take over the role of Crestwell May 26-June 21

There are no gags about wife beating in ‘Relative Values’, which I suppose makes this late comedy fairly progressive by the standards of noted right-wing wit Noël Coward. In most other respects his rarely revived 1951 play is drearily predictable stuff, a trudge through familiar Coward tropes that makes you wish director Trevor Nunn had cut the crap and revived one of the five plays by Noël that people still like.

If you’ve seen the West End revival of ‘Blithe Spirit’ you’ll have some déjà vu: both productions have near identical sets and settings – the drawing room of a Kentish country pile – and both concern brash female outsiders disrupting cosy English order.

At least ‘Blithe Spirit’ has a lurid supernatural twist. In ‘Relative Values’ there’s scandal brewing when the ineffectual Nigel, Earl of Marchwood (Sam Hoare) falls for the leggy charms of American film star Miranda Frayle (Leigh Zimmerman). But, uh oh! It turns out she’s a most unsuitable match – she’s actually the long-lost sister of the family’s chief maid, Moxie (Caroline Quentin). Can scheming matriarch Felicity, Countess of Marshwood (Patricia Hodge) save the family name? Do you care?

Coward’s play is a satire on the dream of social mobility, but much as ‘Relative Values’ reeks of class snobbery, I found it hard to get worked up – his servants are happy being servants, his toffs are happy being toffs, his Americans don’t know their place… it’s breathtakingly condescending, but never nasty.

The main problem is the monumentally stodgy, near-90-minute first half, as Moxie flaps at improbable length over the prospect of meeting her sister, the countess tuts in acid sympathy and all the social misunderstandings that will make for a relatively entertaining second half are laboriously signposted.  

There are some game performances, notably cool-as-a-crustless-cucumber-sandwich Hodge and Rory Bremner as the savvy family butler, Crestwell. And Nunn’s chief innovation, of prefacing each scene with a snatch of 1951 newsreel footage, is fun. But none of it makes this play worth exhuming: a dated, cliché-bound paean to the status quo in which nothing much happens.

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