Noël Coward was 18 when he wrote The Rat Trap. It was not staged until he was 26, when it ran for only 12 performances, none of which he (then in New York) was able to see. But he always felt that it was his “first really serious attempt at psychological conflict”. So it’s odd that nobody staged it either during the big celebrations for his 70th birthday in 1969 or during his centenary in 1999. Now the Finborough adds to its laurels by giving us its first staging in 80 years. Anybody interested in Coward should see it.

This isn’t Coward the debonair comedian he later became. In four acts, it charts the first years of the marriage of Sheila and Keld, beginning on the eve of their wedding in 1918. She is a writer, he a playwright, and they both feel experienced enough in worldly matters to be sure their love will last. But Acts Two and Three show them well advanced into conflict, though Coward is clever enough to begin Act Three with a complete change of tone whereby we think that one of them has sacrificed his/her career for the good of the marriage. By Act Four, they’re living apart, and the terms on which they agree to live together again are still not those of the undying love on which they began the play.

Tim Luscombe directs. Much of Coward’s style is blunted by imprecise diction: “coward” is pronounced as if it had one vowel, “hour” as if it had two, and the “t”s in “mutton” are virtually inaudible. Even immature Coward style depends on a sense of polished façade and buried neurosis. But here such lines as “My dear Keld, I took you seriously all the way from Exeter to Plymouth, and all through such charming scenery” are played straight, with no sense of their quality as sheer performance. One watches this Rat Trap as if the play itself here were only glimpsed in embryo; listening, one keeps hearing how much more bite it could have if maturely rendered. And yet it’s a fascination, because here is Coward in embryo himself. All his doomed romances, explosive marriages and irritable artists were to burst from this seed.
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