WHAT WOULD NOEL THINK?
On Saturday we went to the beautiful Theatre Royal in Bath to see Noel Coward’s ‘Present Laughter’ It was a play I acted in years ago in my Am Dram years and was a little concerned that Simon Callow was playing the leading role. He is a gifted actor and writer but would be the first to admit he is no matinee idol.
In the first act belief was not suspended as Simon mooched about the stage looking like a small white- haired rhinoceros which had nubile young girls falling at its feet. In the second act something extraordinary happened, as if the actor said to himself.
‘Ah, the hell with this! I’ll do it my way.’
And the play metamorphosed into a rollicking French farce. His movements and facial expressions became Chaplinesque and the audience roared with laughter. His physicality was amazing. There was a moment when his excitement got the better of him and he jumped .astride a pouffe three feet in the air, thrice – pouffe and all. By the end of the play he had made the part his own and hopefully Noel would have stopped spinning in his grave and relished the tumultuous applause. The rest of the cast were splendid and there was that excited buzz, as we left the theatre when people have had a jolly good time.
In my day Noel Coward was a great big star. Even today his plays are constantly revived and many of his lines ‘Very flat – Norfolk’ are in common usage. Most of his plays were full of wit and glamour and a blessed relief in the years of austerity. He was a true patriot and was passionate about the film ‘In which we serve’ where he portrayed Lord Mountbatten (later murdered by the IRA) and his ship the Kelly.
We loved to hear on the wireless, his song,
‘Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the mid-day sun.’ Unforgettable when sung by Noel in his clipped, stiff upper lip, terribly British voice.
He often acted with Gertrude Lawrence and I like to think of them as two cockney kids made good. In fact Noel was born in Teddington and Gertrude in Newington and their childhood poverty was vastly exaggerated. In their prime they were feted in London and New York yet always retained their common touch and mischievous humour. When they were travelling through Italy once, they ran out of money and called at the Embassy for help. As they were about to leave they went to sign the Visitor’s book and saw that the last signature was ‘Summers Cox.’
They wrote underneath.
‘And Some Avent.’ Giggling they scampered off.
Noel was often surrounded by a coterie of friends including Cole Leslie, Joyce Carey and Graham Payne. This helped to conceal his sexuality, about which he was always very discreet – essential in those times as homosexuality was a criminal offence. Once he was taking afternoon tea with his chums in an Olde Tea Shoppe along with the genteel locals and their lady wives. Noel discovered he hadn’t got a tea spoon and whined,
‘Coley – Noely hasn’t got a ‘poon!’
Whereupon choleric colonels spluttered earl Grey over their seed-cake and hastily departed, snorting in disgust. Naughty Noel!
Finally whilst watching the Queen’s Coronation ( the Queen Mother adored him) with a friend, they saw the very large Queen of Tonga go by in an open carriage with a companion.
‘ Whose her friend?’ Noel was asked.
‘Lunch!’ quipped Noel.
Happy May Day everyone. I know it’s May Day because we were roused at crack of dawn by the Hobby Horse – a traditional local way of raising money for charity.