The burden of Noël Coward’s 1951 country-house comedy is that, rightly or wrongly, we expect the social orders to keep to their own. In this case Moxie, longtime lady’s maid to the dowager Countess of Marshwood, feels unable to continue in service when her ladyship’s son the earl returns with his new fiancée, a Hollywood star . . . who is in fact Moxie’s sister, estranged since their Brixton childhood. Moxie could not live with curtseying to her mendacious sister, nor in the end could his lordship marry the glittering Miranda Frayle (played by Leigh Zimmerman) if the truth about her became known.
The wider ripples of the Downton Abbey effect may lie behind the Theatre Royal Bath’s decision to revive the piece, which now comes into the West End following a successful tour. It certainly isn’t the play. Even on its premiere this was considered minor Coward, with less of the trademark acid wit and more flab and filler than one expects, and time has not aged it well. The box-office draw is the production and cast rather than the play.
Patricia Hodge is on fine form as the Countess, and is well complemented by Steven Pacey as her nephew and co-conspirator; Pacey showed a couple of years ago in Charley’s Aunt that he has a talent for playing well-to-do gents who have entered middle age without slowing down or acquiring grace and poise, and his Hon. Peter is cut from the same cloth. Caroline Quentin puts in a reliable turn as Moxie, and Rory Bremner in his theatrical debut is still too eager to deploy the kind of tics and quirks that serve him so well as an impressionist but in this context make him look and sound less natural than those around him.
The production suffers too from the mixed blessing that is Trevor Nunn’s direction. Nunn’s characteristic skill is in making action seem natural, but that can be inimical to the pace needed for Coward; add in historical-footnote newsreel sequences briefing us on 1951, gratuitous dance outbreaks and other business and the result is that the inadequacies of the play seem exaggerated.