by Noël Coward
Director Martin Parr has now stylishly revived this comedy drama, giving it the production it deserves in a traverse staging at the Finborough Theatre. The wife of an acclaimed novelist Janet Ebony (Zoë Waites as the svelte tomboyish socialite) finds herself unjustly accused of adultery after a French train crash reveals she was travelling - for entirely innocent reasons - with old friend Peter Chelsworth (Richard Dempsey) in a wagon lit.
While the newspapers never accuse her of being caught in flagrante, the court of public opinion and, along with it, her complacent husband Paul (Tim Chipping), his sharp tongued mother (Polly Adams), her naturally defensive mother (Joanna David) and - keep up those at the back! - Peter's fiancée Lavinia (Nelly Harker) all presume this celebrity's wife is guilty and the writer is the innocent party.
Subject to such unwarranted, if veiled, attacks Janet with Peter's collusion determines to teach her husband and relatives a lesson. The two pretend to fulfil the suspicions, with Lavinia as somewhat unfortunate collateral damage, without fully thinking out the consequences of their actions.
The plan causes a revolution in the Ebony household, as Janet skates on thin ice in this private but increasingly serious game with the subtlest of subtexts indicating her husband, a serial novelist, may not be such an innocent party, even apart from his seemingly platonic dalliance with widow Mavis (Clare Lawrence Moody).
The play is structured like a game of consequences - he said, she said and the world in general said mixed with the adversarial fictions of the law courts. The prosecution with false evidence in the First Act, the defence in the Second and in the Final Act, a false verdict, although an ostensible happy ending. The whole less Chinese boxes than dog chasing its own tail
Written in the years during which Coward was travelling back and forth between the United States, as well as France, and England, there are obvious echoes of both Coward's life and literary influences. Beneath the wit and japery, the hurt and artifice of the divorce courts before the age of "no fault divorce" loaded against the woman is also threaded through the play.
Yet TLT and her automotive companion (a purely platonic gas guzzling relationship, my dear reader) were also reminded of the in flagrante situation of another writer.
That stalwart of the printers' pension fund, Charles Dickens, was not only beastly to his wife. But he relied on the silence of newspapers and his own circle on another matter. He and his young mistress, actress Ellen Ternan, were caught up in a fatal train crash but the press only reported his heroic actions in helping passengers.
So as well as the rights of women, it seems to us the play reflects the roundabout of the book trade in its use of women.
The play is directed by Parr with control and pace with Rebecca Brower's set design, lighting by Christopher Nairn, Peter Malkin's sound and costumes by Charlotte Espiner giving a seamless period feel to the piece.
The matriachs David and Adams, all too easily swayed by literary stereotype and public gossip who lament prematurely the state of their children's marriage catch the rhythm and twists and turns precisely. There is an evocative addition to the published text with Robert Hazle as man-servant bringing pertinent musical interludes singing carefully chosen Coward songs.
All in all, this revival shows the strength of Coward's compact wit and stagecraft with a polished production. We're defintitely going to defy the early twentieth century hecklers by giving this newly recut gem a green light.