Director Blanche McIntyre takes an ensemble approach to this, astoundingly, first full UK revival of Noël Coward’s series of playlets since their 1936 London premiere. Usually a selection is made from among the nine pieces (Coward withdrew a 10th) and presented as a triple bill, but English Touring Theatre and Southampton’s Nuffield Theatre now enterprisingly offer a trio of trios, presented in rep with a few all-day opportunities to collect the entire set.
McIntyre is astute. In the absence of a star coupling to match the original of Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, one pair of lead actors might carry off a single three-pack but not the lot; it makes much more sense to distribute main roles among the company (which also numbers nine). Thus, on the bill labelled “Dinner”, Kirsty Besterman begins in Ways and Means as one of a fashionable but skint couple on the Riviera (imagine Private Lives meets Fun with Dick and Jane) before stepping back to become the whingeing daughter of a termagant in the (misogynistic) worm-finally-turns scene in Fumed Oak and the railway station tea-room assistant in Still Life (subsequently expanded to become Brief Encounter). Olivia Poulet, in the same batch, plays the battle-axe in Fumed Oak but bookends this with cameos as a long-suffering maid and the chattering friend who prevents the lovers from taking an intense farewell before that last train out of Milford Junction.
Staging what are, in effect, nine separate plays on a modest budget calls for some miracles. Robert Innes Hopkins’ stage design relies on the same three flats in assorted configurations, and works with versatile flair, despite making for a slightly low-rent fantasia in Shadow Play, the final item in the “Dancing” bill. This is one of several plays that break into song (Red Peppers centres on a bickering vaudeville couple), a tactic which this company does not always pull off – sparse arrangements accentuate weak vocals.
Nevertheless, McIntyre and her team (with Gyuri Sarossy and Peter Singh also deserving particular mention) show off the range of Coward’s writing – from bitchy wit through social satire to near-overdone romance – with verve and aplomb. Relative Values, currently in the West End, may be stuck in its bygone age, but even in tails Tonight At 8:30 feels surprisingly often like tonight.
To May 24, then touring to end of July, ett.org.uk