Volcano, Vaudeville Theatre, London

In this rediscovered play, staged here by Roy Marsden, Noël Coward relocates the action from around his own expatriate community on Jamaica to a Micronesian island, and overdoes the symbolism by sticking his characters on the slopes of a . . . yes . . . an intermittently active volcano. Though it was written in 1956, it received its premiere in a staged reading only in 1989, some 16 years after the author’s death. To say that this is unsurprising is a helpful equivocation.

It certainly has more than its share of clunking lines, such as swaggering lothario Guy Littleton (Jason Durr)’s “Why do you so resolutely refuse to let me possess you?” and moderately upright Adela Shelley (Jenny Seagrove)’s reply, “Your definition of love is utterly different from mine.” When Guy’s wife Melissa arrives on the island, she is mistakenly convinced that he and Adela have had an affair; in reality, Guy is in the process of ensnaring “virginal” new arrival Ellen Danbury, whose husband in turn arrives intent on reconciliation, only to find . . . ah . . .

For much of the first act, it often seems like the most stilted kind of suburban adultery drama transposed to the South Pacific. Matters become a little racier when Adela and the other women begin to have comparatively candid duologues. Even so, one cannot imagine the Lord Chamberlain, Britain’s theatrical censor until the late 1960s, having much to object to in this material; it does little more than use the S-E-X word.

Ah, but then the tiniest twist makes all the difference: when the Danburys are discussing husband Keith’s recent “mere physical flare-up”, the lover in question is not “she” but “he”. And who was Keith’s first great, never-transcended love? Nothing is explicit, but at that moment, enter Guy . . . 

Seagrove is, as so often, adept at playing a passionate character whose passion is all offstage. Durr is all moustache and trousers, and Dawn Steele as his wife Melissa proves consummate at wet-blanketing every other character’s polite conversational gambits. This is not a great drama belatedly unveiled, but it is an agreeably intriguing way to pass an evening in the dog days of summer.


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