A devil of a good time is had in Noel Coward’s divine comedy Fallen Angels at Brighton’s Theatre Royal this week.
It was one of Coward’s earlier plays (first produced in 1925) and critics at the time felt it was “vulgar, disgusting, outrageous, shocking, nauseating, obscene and degenerate.” Happily or otherwise (depending on your point of view!), Roy Marsden directs with style and sophistication, ensuring that the hilarious piece is firmly removed from a dusty shelf and it fizzes rather than creaks.
In lesser hands this story of two lifelong friends who are thrown into a tizzy after receiving postcards with a promise of a visit from an enigmatic Frenchman with whom both had enjoyed affaires de coeur years earlier could seem dated and dull. But Marsden and the cast of six have clearly had enormous fun staging the play and their enthusiasm is deeply infectious.
What shocked the critics 90 years ago was that two married well-to-do women should be discussing the possibility of rekindling the flame of their pre-marital fling after becoming rather bored with their husbands after 12 years.
Such matters barely register on the eyelid-batting scale today, but we are treated to two glorious performances by the female leads, Jenny Seagrove and Sara Crowe, and so much audience laughter ensues that we are even in danger of missing some of the lines.
The actresses work brilliantly together as the wives whose emotions run wild at the thought of their former lover re-entering their stale lives. Jenny Seagrove is the more strait-laced, while Sara Crowe is more dizzy and melodramatic – both delivering extraordinary athleticism and exquisite comic timing throughout. Once the champagne corks start popping their inhibitions disappear, culminating in a riotous drunken display involving pineapples, a troublesome telephone, and a game of tennis with trays and profiteroles.
Playing their poor husbands, Tim Wallers and Robin Sebastian are wonderfully prim and suitably outraged, while Philip Battley makes the most of his late appearance in the play as the handsome object of the women’s attentions. Completing the sextet is an excellent Gillian McCafferty as the infuriatingly expert ladies’ maid, well-experienced at everything from playing the piano to dealing with hangovers.
Paul Farnsworth’s beautiful London apartment set is a joy of period decor, though somehow the production manages to extricate itself from being too closely stuck in its original 1920s setting. Instead, it demonstrates Coward’s timeless ability to amuse – and it’s a delight that the cast and the audience alike can enjoy themselves quite so much.