Wednesday, November 16, 2011

“Sincerely, Noël” - but not Noël enough for me

The question that anyone planning to go to see “Sincerely, Noël” needs to ask themselves is this  “Would I go to the theatre to hear Alistair McGowan sing ?”  McGowan is, of course, a brilliant impressionist and a decent actor. He is not really known for his singing skills but, on the evidence of “Sincerely, Noël” he has a pleasant tuneful voice and he can carry a song. Sufficient, you would think when combined with his ability to do accurate impressions, to carry off an evening of and as Noël Coward. After all the Master’s own distinctive vocal style whilst musically adept, was hardly such that he would manage to hold an audience for very long except with his own material. But only once, and then fitfully, do we get McGowan as Noël – when he performs “Alice is at it again” which he does, in part, with Cowardian intonations. The other songs in the show are not presented as Coward at all, but as McGowan -  and frankly you wouldn't really pay good money to hear him sing. Its a huge missed opportunity because on the flimsy evidence of that one song Alistair McGowan could certainly “do” Noël Coward very well indeed.

So if we do not get any Noël Coward impressions during the evening what do we get? It is all Coward’s material and it has been well chosen to include a few rarities as well as some of the more familiar songs, poems and sketches.   The balcony scene from Private Lives is nicely performed and for me a real highlight was the extraordinary poem “Not yet the Dodo” a classic of socially liberal writing and a quite  remarkable observation of the generation gap and of class.

McGowan’s partner is Charlotte Page who, unlike him, is a professional singer of distinction. I found her voice a tad over operatic for some of the material but it is unquestionably a very fine voice – she is also a good actress   able to change her accent well as required by the material.

Except during the “Dodo” piece I did not sense a frisson of engagement from the audience – there was no real buzz and even the laughter and applause felt a little forced. There were no doubt many Coward aficionados at the Cadogan Hall and I’m fairly sure that they would have felt that they had been a little short-changed by the evening. There was only one total turkey and that was “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” – one of Noël’s iconic pieces of course. This was presented not as a solo Cowardesque musical recitation but as a duet with the performers doing the song in silly cod Germanic voices as if they were a couple of Germans commenting on the foolishness of the English for going out in the Midday sun. It was really as dire as it sounds and should long ago have been replaced in the programme.

McGowan gives us “There Are Bad Times Just Around the Corner” in the style of a speech by William Hague  (and earlier he did a wickedly accurate Will Self impression). These were slightly gratuitous in the context of the evening but they showed what might have been. We could have done with a tad more light-heatedness of this sort and much much more of McGowan as Coward which, not unreasonably, I suspect that most of the audience had expected they would see.


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