I’ve had the experience before of going to a Noel Coward play and realising with some surprise what a good dramatist he was. The same happened going to Jonas Cemm’s production for Tread the Boards Company.
Attic regulars are now used to good acting and good directing but with this production we have a much more detailed and elaborate set than usual. Adam Clark and Sue Kent have gone to town to create a period room, but by creating four distinct spaces – table and chairs, sitting room with chaise longue, breakfast table area, downstage left entrance – they have made the space seem even larger, despite the amount of furniture placed in it. The costumes – and everyone changes costume at least once during the play – are sumptuously period and lovely to look at.
In Cemm’s hands this play is not just amusing and suspenseful fluff; it is also a serious exploration of the unconscious where motivation and relationships are more important than superficial plot contrivances. And the whole thing is interspersed by delightful, nostalgic and often rather touching Noel Coward songs.
Right from the beginning the acting is confident and characterful. Rosie Coles as Ruth gives us an object lesson right at the start in how to do a period sit. Her grace and fluidity is deceptively charming, a splendid contrast to John-Robert Partridge’s stolid Charles whose charm and bluster masks a superficial and unfeeling nature. Florence Sherratt is very funny as the dashing servant Edith who prepares the ground very effectively for the revelation at the end that she has been in flight from her real self. Robert Moore and Matilda Bott play the two characters whom Coward is not very interested in: Dr and Mrs Bradman.
The whole play centres on the medium Madam Arcati, often played as vastly exaggerated or completely nuts. Den Woods does neither. In contrast to the stiff upper class characters she is more like one of us – eccentric perhaps but not pretentious and not living a superficial life of lies. Despite her trafficking with the occult her emotions are readily recognisable. The final character is the ghost of Charles’s first wife, Elvira. Katherine de Halpert is quite perfect. She looks wonderful, moves beautifully and fools everyone with aplomb.
This is a production to savour. All leads to the final few moments of the play which are splendidly handled. Wait to be surprised.