Review: Tonight At 8.30
Image: Jermyn Street Theatre
Rosemary Ashe: Clara (We Were Dancing), Nanny (Ways and Means), Martha (Shadow Play), Lily Pepper (Red Peppers) Violet (Star Chamber), Myrtle (Still Life), Emily (Family Album), Clare Wedderburn (Hands Across the Sea).
Stefan Bednarczyk Musical Director / Piano and playing: Major Blake (We Were Dancing), Alf (Red Peppers), Jimmie Horlick (Star Chamber), Albert (Still Life), Bu:rrows (Family Album), Peter (Hands Across the Sea), Sir Reginald (The Astonished Heart)
Sara Crowe: Louise Charteris (We Were Dancing), Olive Lloyd-Ransom (Ways and Means), Victoria (Shadow Play), Xenia James (Star Chamber), Dolly (Still Life), Lavinia (Family Album), Mrs Wadhurst (Hands Across the Sea), Leonora (The Astonished Heart).
Miranda Foster: Stella (Ways and Means), Sibyl (Shadow Play), Miss Mabel Grace (Red Peppers) Dame Rose (Star Chamber), Laura (Still Life), Jane (Family Album), Piggie (Hands Across the Sea), Barbara (The Astonished Heart).
Ian Hallard: Karl (We Were Dancing), Chaps (Ways and Means), Simon (Shadow Play), Johnny Bolton (Star Chamber), Johnnie (Still Life), Richard (Family Album), Mr Wadhurst (Hands Across the Sea).
Jeremy Rose: Servant (We Were Dancing), Gaston (Ways and Means), George Cunningham (Shadow Play), George Pepper (Red Peppers), Julian Breed (Star Chamber), Bill (Still Life), Edward (Family Album), Ally (Hands Across the Sea), Ernest (The Astonished Heart).
Boadicea Ricketts: Eva (We Were Dancing), Princess Eléna (Ways and Means), Lena (Shadow Play), Hester (Star Chamber), Beryl (Still Life), Harriet (Family Album), Walters (Hands Across the Sea), Susan (The Astonished Heart).
Nick Waring: Hubert Charteris (We Were Dancing), Toby Cartwright (Ways and Means), Michael (Shadow Play), Mr Edwards (Red Peppers), Mr Farmer (Star Chamber), Alec (Still Life), Jasper Featherways (Family Album), Major 'Bogey' Gosling (Hands Across the Sea), Christian (The Astonished Heart).
Ben Wiggins: George (We Were Dancing), Stevens (Ways and Means), Young Man (Shadow Play), Alf (Red Peppers), Maurice (Star Chamber), Stanley (Still Life), Charles (Family Album), Mr Burnham (Hands Across the Sea), Tim (The Astonished Heart).
Noel Coward's dazzling versatility shines across nine one-act plays.
Bedroom Farces (We Were Dancing, Ways and Means, Shadow Play).
Secret Hearts (Star Chamber, Red Peppers, Still Life).
Nuclear Families (Family Album, Hands Across the Sea, The Astonished Heart).
From the railway station of Still Life to the Pacific island of We Were Dancing; from the music-hall of Red Peppers to the ache of The Astonished Heart, this is the first complete London revival since 1936.
The nine plays are arranged into three trios, called Nuclear Families, Bedroom Farces, and Secret Hearts.
Each trio stands alone.
On Saturdays and Sundays, you can see the entire cycle across a single day, with breaks for lunch and dinner.
With a Weekend Trilogy Ticket + Meal Deal your day will include a delicious two-course dinner at Getti Restaurant.
"I knew marrying you was a mistake seven years ago - but I never realised the thoroughness of the mistake until now."
Affairs of the heart, the bed, and the chequebook are wittily and touchingly captured in this trio of plays, containing some of Coward's most popular music.
We Were Dancing, a comedy featuring Coward's song of the same title, is set on an idyllic island, where the guests of a country club are enmeshed in a complex web of extra-marital affairs.
Ways and Means is a comedy about the bohemian Stella and Toby, who go from villa to villa on the Côte d'Azur.
But when they cannot pay their gambling debts, they plan to make an easy fortune …
Shadow Play is a 'musical fantasy'.
Peppered with songs and dances including 'Play, Orchestra, Play', it is a moving portrait of a marriage under strain.
Running time approx 2 hours 15 minutes, including an interval.
"I know that this is the beginning of the end - not the end of my love for you - but the end of our being together."
Secret dreams, unfulfilled ambitions and impossible desires: this trio of two plays and one musical comedy has everything from outrageous farce to heartbreaking romance.
Star Chamber is a comedy about a charity committee meeting, set in a theatre and peopled by outrageous characters.
Red Peppers is a riotous tribute to music-hall.
George and Lily Pepper battle with tiny dressing rooms, a grumbling audience, and a drunken pianist.
Still Life was later immortalised as Brief Encounter.
In a station refreshment room, Laura meets Alec.
Running time around 2 hours 15 minutes, including an interval.
"You'd better come and dine tonight - I'm on a diet, so there's only spinach."
The glitter of middle-class life is exposed as the thinnest of façades in these three plays, ranging from laugh-out-loud comedy to mesmeric drama.
Family Album is a social comedy wickedly poking fun at Victorian sentiment.
The Featherways family have gathered to mourn their father. But the siblings are not on their best behaviour.
Hands Across the Sea is a glittering comedy reminiscent of Hay Fever.
Naval officer Peter Gilpin and his wife 'Piggie' are the most eccentric party hosts in London.
The Astonished Heart is a gripping drama of secrecy and betrayal.
A brilliant psychiatrist, Christian appears to have the perfect life. Then he meets Leonora …
Running time around 2 hours 30 minutes, including an interval.
If it's possible to overdose on the work of Noël Coward, I came close to it yesterday watching a mega-marathon of 9 one act plays from the pen of The Master.
'Overdosing', though, implies that something has gone amiss - too much of something leading to disastrous effects or undesirable consequences.
Actually, nothing could be further from the truth in this case, though to watch all of these 9 plays might seem as exhausting as it must be for both the fabulous ensemble cast and the superbly organised stage management team who collectively bring this astonishing theatrical feat to the stage.
Brilliantly directed by Jermyn Street Theatre's artistic director, Tom Littler, Noël Coward's 'Tonight at 8-30' is a collection of 10 pieces which Coward wrote to explore the short, one act play.
The original production opened in 1936 at the Phoenix Theatre and the plays were performed in trios.
Here, Jermyn Street Theatre has put all bar one of them into a complete package of 9 (only 'Fumed Oak' is missing) but they are still being presented as trilogies.
In each trilogy, there's a short break for a set-change between the first and second play, and then a longer interval between the 2nd and 3rd, with the total running time being about 2.5 hours for each trilogy.
So, yesterday, I watched in a single day about 7.5 hours of Coward plays.
You don't have to do that, though - you can see each trio as a single performance during the run.
And just a note ... the titles of the trilogies (as shown above) have been selected by Jermyn Street and are not Noël Coward's originals.
Ensemble in Star Chamber - photo by Robert Workman
The scope and scale of this production is astonishing and quite breathtaking - it's the largest project that Jermyn Street has undertaken in its 24 year history.
An ensemble cast of just 9 perform all the roles, requiring some 89 costumes and, presumably, staggering memories and enormous, almost unfathomable stamina.
Though Jermyn Street is a small theatre, with presumably limited space for storing furntiture, each of the sets is different even if there is occasional recycling of some props.
But Louie Whitemore's economical but enormously effective design never seems to be short on ideas to provide suitable and impressively distinctive locations for each of the plays.
From the atmospherically gloomy, nineteenth century home where a funeral party have assembled, to the neatly cared-for station buffet for the romantic dalliances of a doctor and a housewife there's variety in abundance.
And the sets are assembled by a superbly skilled stage management team whose unhurried, but painstaking work - with not a single note or list in sight - is almost as much a joy to watch as the actors' performances.
Nick Waring, Miranda Foster in Still Life - photo by Robert Workman
There's enormous variety in terms of the content among the plays (which the brief outlines above will readily confirm).
This all-day version, kicked-off with the trilogy called 'Bedroom Farces', and ended with 'Secret Hearts'.
That running order in itself is inspired, starting with a hilarious comedy, and ending with the poignantly sad love story in Still Life (the play that was later to be reworked into the film Brief Encounter).
The first play, 'We Were Dancing', turned out to be the funniest and wittiest in the whole schedule, at least from my point of view.
Some later plays - like 'Star Chamber' and 'Red Peppers', which focus on the theatrical and performing fraternity - are not as funny, though one would have thought that Coward's knowledge of his industry might have provided both the characters and anecdotes to provide truly hilarious scenarios.
But, judging on these plays, Coward seems at his best when he explores a simple idea.
Ian Hallard, Sara Crowe in We Were Dancing - photo by: Robert Workman
So in 'We Were Dancing', Coward looks at what might happen when two people fall instantly in love.
With just one dance, Louise Charteris - a married woman - falls in love with Karl Sandys.
Though they've never met before - and Louise doesn't even know the name of her new admirer - the pair decide to go off together, providing much mirth as we watch and hear the reactions of Louise's husband, Hubert, and his sister Clara.
Similarly, in 'Ways and Means', the simple idea is that Stella and Toby find themselves completely broke and are about to be turned-out from their friend's home where they've been staying.
Watching all the plays together clearly shows the breadth of Noël Coward's writing which roams over a vast range of issues and settings.
Given the sheer scale of this production, there just isn't time to dissect each play in detail, but suffice it to say that there's not only a huge variety of content and ideas, but comedy and poignancy aplenty.
And all of it seems to have widespread appeal judging by the hugely positive reactions from all age-groups represented in the audience.
So, if you think that Noël Coward's work is dated, you might want to reconsider because much of what we see in these plays is largely timeless, with elements that embody ample relevance in the present day.
Many of the plays are peppered with Coward's own songs and tunes - many of them hummable or wistful, and sometimes both.
And musical director, Stefan Bednarczyk, provides witty introductions to the scene changes, following-up with excellent piano renditions of Coward's musical delights.
There must be very few people in the theatre world who have the energy, vision and daring to tackle this kind of undertaking.
The very thought of embarking on a project to produce 9 plays is enough in itself, but this season also includes three new plays which react to Tonight at 8-30, making the venture even more mind-bogglingly adventurous.
Setting-off for the theatre yesterday, I certainly wondered if I had the stamina to sit through all these plays to the very last.
In a strange way, though, the vast energy and sprit of the production almost gets transferred to the audience through the riveting, shared experience, and I never felt for a moment that I was suffering anything close to fatigue.
The staggering scale of this endeavour is enough on its own to impress, but it's in the execution of the enterprise - with flawless acting from an exceptional ensemble inspired and orchestrated by a hugely talented director - that the real worth and joy lies.
A gloriously sublime and unique theatrical experience.
Links and related content
ActDrop listing for Jermyn Street Theatre
Our show listing for Tonight At 8.30
Read our reviews' policy