A new production of Noël Coward’s Relative Values has arrived in London from the Theatre Royal Bath. It’s another sparkling comedy for the West End, boasting star performances from Patricia Hodge and Caroline Quentin, and with respectful direction from Trevor Nunn that is sure to please aficionados of the author.
This is the one where Lady Marshwood (Hodge) finds her son has gone and got himself engaged to a film star (the perfectly cast Leigh Zimmerman), who happens to be the estranged sister of her maid Moxie (Quentin). It’s simply not on. Hodge and Quentin are spot on, making the most of each acerbic line and convincing as two women who have grown close despite the class divide.
As one line in the play points out, this is a comedy idea not to be sniffed at – especially when Moxie, to avoid awkwardness, receives a promotion from maid to companion/secretary. Cue excruciating after dinner drinks and an explosive confrontation between Moxie and her sister that will have you in stitches. All this is aided by the butler, naturally a clever chap with a philosophical bent, performed by none other than Rory Bremner, who makes a great West End debut.
You certainly get your money’s worth. Relative Values is long and Nunn does little to speed it up. It’s a valid decision but I am not sure films introducing each act, providing historical background, are really needed. Some minor roles could be pepped up. But the whole thing, Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set included, drips quality.
Never underestimate Coward. Producers don’t – look at Blythe Spirit packing them in at the Gielgud. It now seems barely believable that he was once regarded as an unfashionable writer. His observations about class and the changing times of the early 50s, that Nunn takes Coward’s lead in emphasising, leave me cold but then I sometimes feel pretty lonely in these Downton Abbey obsessed times. Coward’s insights into human nature are still pointed and serve his comedy marvelously well. And at the heart of this play Quentin and Hodge make a great team: queens of comedy reigning gloriously.
Until 21 June 2014
Photo by Catherine Ashmore
Written 15 April 2014 for The London Magazine