Tuesday, July 16, 2013

“Relative Values”–the Master at his best

The best compliment I can pay the Theatre Royal Bath’s new production of Noel Coward’s “Relative Values” is that it made me realise for the first time what a very good play it is. It has not been frequently produced  - certainly compared with the great plays from the 1930s. But in fact I think that there is a case to be made for “Relative Values” to be Coward’s masterpiece. The reason is the brilliance of the plot and the dialogue and the strength of the characters. Coward wrote “Upstairs Downstairs” type drama Bremnerlong before that TV series and he had a gift for the characterisation of the Toffs as well as the Servants which was exemplary. In “Relative Values” we have all the nuances of class handled in a subtle and hilarious way. We also have the addition of cross Atlantic culture clash with the appearance of the Errol Flynn like “Don Lucas” and his past lover “Miranda Frayle – a Hollywood star.

The spectrum of class runs from the vacuous “Earl of Marshwood” and his mother Felicity the Dowager Countess at one end through to  Mrs Moxton (Moxie) who is Felicity’s Lady’s maid. There is also Crestwell the Butler who in Rory Bremner’s excellent portrayal has a foot in both camps. When he is talking to the Family Crestwell is all carefully modulated Received Pronunciation English. When he talks with Moxie or Alice the Maid he reverts to his natural voice with its East End vowels . For Bremner this comes naturally of course and his performance in his first straight play is very good. Crestwell is rather Jeeves-like and the other characters in the Play are distinctly Wodehousian as well. As indeed is the plot.
The vacuous Earl wants to marry the cunning and ebullient film star. The family – especially Felicity (a magnificent performance by Patricia Hodge) want to stop this. As does Moxie not least because she has discovered that Ms Frayle is her long-lost sister. This set up has the potential for farce but in fact whilst it is light and frothy comedy it never quite leaves the realms of believability in Coward’s sure hands. Caroline Quentin’s Moxie is  a fine observation of someone comfortable in her sphere but also quite capable of becoming genteel in a slightly Eliza Doolittle sort of way when the plot requires it. I enjoyed Katherine Kingsley’s Miranda as well – this is the one part which borders on caricature and Kingsley brings it off well.

I suppose if you take Noel Coward, add Trevor Nunn to direct, include professional actors of the quality of Hodge and Quentin and sprinkle in a touch of Rory Bremner you should be en route to a success. This production is certainly that. But more than that it feels like a new Coward discovery and one that is as assured in construction and style as it is possible to be. In this very modern production there is also a deliciously camp Steven Pacey to enjoy as Felicity's nephew Peter. Whether it was intended by Coward that this role should be Gay (in the modern sense) rather than just Gay (in the sense that Coward’s era used the word) I'm not sure. But it works – as does everything in this well-paced, witty and eye-opening production. The Master would have approved.