Revivals of plays by Noel Coward have appeared a-plenty in the past couple of years and have tended to be very hit and miss – either hitting the spot and reminding us of the master’s wit and dramatic brilliance or leaving us wondering why anybody bothered to dust them down.
In the Bath Theatre Royal’s new touring production of Relative Values every conceivable ingredient gels together perfectly, from the exquisite casting to Trevor Nunn’s frothy and faultless direction and you would have to have an icy sense of humour indeed were you not to find it all thoroughly engaging and highly entertaining.
First performed in 1951 Relative Values marked a welcome post-war return to comedy playwriting for Coward and was an instant success. This production captures the period well, not least in the well-chosen newsreels which precede every act, but perhaps it still works today because there seems to be something quite up to date in this satire which sees the snobbish (but not unpleasant) English aristocracy having to confront the glittering world of Hollywood fame.
Coward manages to take a dig at himself as the sagacious butler in this play observes, “Comedies of manners swiftly become obsolete when there are no longer any manners” but the truth is the play contains enough drama and laughter to make even the inhabitants of Downton Abbey jealous.
Patricia Hodge is simply stunning as the Dowager Countess whose son brings home a would-be bride torn from a sparkling silver screen career. Not a line misses the target and there is both a sharp wit and a deeper emotional level present in what should really be an award-winning performance.
Caroline Quentin is great too as the devoted lady’s maid Moxie, forced to make a tough decision when she realises the “common, painted hussy” of a film star is someone she knows all too well. This may well be “a coincidence in the best tradition of English high comedy”, but Quentin finds the necessary outrage and emotion without losing any of the comedy.
Steven Pacey makes the most of his role as the Countess’s nephew Peter (Coward himself would surely have been delighted by the performance) and Katherine Kingsley and Ben Mansfield show up wonderfully the artificiality of the film world as the sex symbol Miranda and her true beau.
A genuine and pleasing revelation is Rory Bremner, making his acting debut as the trusty and insightful butler Crestwell. You warm to him immediately with his head-bobbing and wise words, a sardonic servant with no trace of cliché.
Maybe everything comes to a head and is resolved a little too quickly in what is a fairly long play, but that is not the fault of the production, which manages to shimmer with elegance and ensure you leave the theatre with a hearty chuckle.