REVIEW: English Touring Theatre present Noel Coward’s Tonight at 8.30

A scene from the show. Photo by Mark Douet.

A scene from the show. Photo by Mark Douet. - Credit: Photo by Mark Douet

Nine one act plays, at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, July 12.

You are lucky to see one Noel Coward short play, let alone be treated to nine of them. Here is a wonderful mixture of the comic, the deeply serious and even a bit of tap dance thrown in. Who couldn’t love it?

Yes, there was once a time – certainly in 1936 when Coward starred in these plays - when actors wouldn’t have had the nerve to go on the stage unless they could also sing and dance. Guess what, here we have a modern cast who can match that.

Coward is best known today for his funny stuff, Private Lives, always being performed somewhere with a couple tearing each other apart as they leap over the sofa; Blithe Spirit (still packing ‘em in at a West End theatre this year with Angela Lansbury as the eccentric medium Madam Arcati). And of course, romance. The film Brief Encounter started out as his one act play Still Life.

He was also a patriot. The 1940s films, This Happy Breed and In Which We Serve, play tribute to the courage of the ordinary men and women who are the backbone of Britain. If that were not enough he has a canon of music to his credit too.

But in this production we see yet another Coward, the gay rights campaigner. It’s hinted at alright in the play Design for Living with its ménage of two men and a woman but it’s even stronger here in the one act play, The Astonished Heart.

Ostensibly, the married man Christian is having an affair with another woman, Leonora. But the piece, where a wife encourages her husband to be true to himself no matter what the cost to their marriage, makes more sense when you see the lover as a young gay man, who eventually breaks the older man’s heart.

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As the husband lies unconscious after a suicide leap, his secretary laments that she hates “Leonora”. Why asks the wife, you might as well hate the paper that a note is written on.

Golden performances here from Orlando Wells, Olivia Poulet and Shereen Martin as husband, wife and lover.

Each trio of plays, directed by Blanche McIntyre, has a mixture of humour and pathos with all the actors showing their range and all delightfully observant of the demeanours and voices of the time without ever stooping to parody. It’s meant to be a lark but the Red Peppers’ tap dance was sublime for me. There is something wonderful about seeing a thing done well. And just for the record no one says “terribly” the whole evening.

INFORMATION: Friday, July 11: Fumed Oak, Ways and Means, Still Life. Saturday July 12: All nine plays. At noon: We Were Dancing, The Astonished Heart, Red Peppers. 3.30pm: Fumed Oak, Ways and Means, Still Life. 7.45pm: Family Album, Hands Across the Sea, Shadow Play. Tickets £15-£27 from 01223 503333 or