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Coward, White Bear Theatre – Review

James Martin Charlton
Directed by Terence Mann

Pros: An enthralling and colourful look into the private life of one of the most well-known and celebrated actor/playwrights of the 20th century. Excellent characterisation by all three actors, particularly of Noël Coward himself (played by Jake Urry).

Cons: As a speculation about Noël Coward’s life and not a biographical dramatisation, there were certain story elements that, while adding to the sympathy for certain characters, did not make immediate sense in the over all arc of the play.

Our Verdict: This is an incredibly engaging and thought-provoking interpretation of Noël Coward’s character that, while not a holistic snapshot, does replicate some of the disconnect and untidy-ness of life.

Courtesy of Just Some Theatre Company

I don’t envy playwright James Martin Charlton his chosen task of tackling the immense character that is Noël Coward, nor actor Jake Urry in bringing his presence to the stage decades after his death. Whittling such a legend down to a 90 minute piece of entertainment is no easy feat. But both Charlton and Urry managed to erect a very defined and compelling glimpse of the man my generation will only know by myth.

The story itself is perhaps one we’ve seen before, and it’s not a happy tale. A person of means, status and power use their resources to control a young and naive object of desire. In fact, this exact story was released in cinema with a different set of characters earlier this year. But before Liberace, there was Noël Coward: same love, same stars in the eyes, same heart-break and same cruelty.

This ‘speculative fiction’ about the playwright is based on several Coward biographies and focuses on a specific relationship of Coward’s with a young actor. As it goes in performance, Leonard Marlrowe (Josh Taylor), a heterosexual actor in the first stages of his career, has been given the opportunity to meet the great (and not straight) Noël Coward. Leonard hopes will have the part for him that will launch his career. As the relationship develops and Leonard is plunged further into Noël’s world of opulence, aesthetics and snobbery, he yearns to be part of a more meaningful society. All the while, he heels at Noël’s bedside, while Noël keeps him in toe. He hovers the offer awarding Leonard one of his best new roles in the earnest hope that he will give into his never-so-subtle desire.

The discomfort of watching Coward’s tyranny over and manipulation of Marlrowe is augmented by his equally steely grip on his devoted servant Cole (Peter Stone). This complex power dynamic is intriguing and raises a great deal of thought-provoking questions about status, class, human rights and even human decency. However its direction is somewhat predictable, and watching Coward’s persistent and worsening cruelty against a loyal companion who won’t fight back is hard-going. Perhaps that’s the point.

Urry presents a Coward that is at once perfectly over the top, grotesque and human, and both he and Charlton deliver a rapier wit throughout the production of which Coward would have been proud.

The characters of Cole and Marlrowe were seemingly used as arguments for and against Coward’s extravagant existence. Interestingly, I think each argument still paints Coward as a bit of a monster – as one punter put it, ‘I hope this was not what Noël Coward was like in real life‘.

It must be mentioned that the simple but thoughtful set and costume with music design by Terence Mann easily transported the audience from a little black box theatre in South London to a luxurious and complicated time in the 1930’s that had its own set of rules. Whether you know everything or nothing about Noël Coward, this is a gripping production with numerous layers to feed your mind and imagination for days.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

Coward runs at the White Bear Theatre until 10 November.

Box Office: 020 7793 9193 or book online at http://whitebeartheatre.co.uk/

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