Volcano by Noel Coward at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, June 23. Review by ANGELA SINGER.
VOLCANO, written in 1957 is a clever play about sexual tensions on a tropical island where British ex-pats have banana plantations and affairs.
The volcano’s eruption is an inspired theatrical metaphor. It is the play’s most exciting moment and really should be where the play begins. Plaudits to lighting and sound designers Mike Robertson and Matthew Bugg and to Simon Scullion for the set.
Unperformed in Coward’s lifetime, and written when he had retired to Jamaica, the piece is usually distained as being less acerbic and witty than the rest of the work by The Master.
That is to underestimate it. The humour is there but needs to be conveyed in the manner of the word. Jenny Seagrove, of course, wears the role of Adela as beautifully and easily as she wears the fifties clothes. Hers is a delicate and subtle performance.
Jason Durr is an elegant cad as Guy Littleton, the sexual magnet of the piece, Tim Daish is perfect as the earnest but gauche Keith Danbury and Robin Sebastian is warm and affable as the good-egg husband Robin Craigie. However, in this play, the younger women are the heart and soul of the piece, they are the ones who can have fun with it, and although there are feisty performances, I missed the restrained fifties demeanour, the self-denying, held-back emotion, and the glorious hypocrisy that is the delight of Coward’s work.
Spite is more satisfying delivered freely and without rancour, as in: “Darling, so brave of her to wear those trousers....”
Some people think the play was never performed in Coward’s lifetime because it was too raunchy and at the time of writing, the censor, The Lord Chamberlain would not have allowed it. However, Coward’s eternal premise that most men are mostly gay and if not gay then mildly bi-sexual had already been expressed, eloquently, in Design for Living, performed in 1933.
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Living in Jamaica and watching the rich and famous have their affairs, Coward used the atmosphere to create yet another play where women were distraught over men they could never really have. Too many gay men had felt obliged to marry and in Volcano, married Guy has affairs with a string of women because none of them actually means anything to him.
It wasn’t that the play was shocking. Quite the opposite, it is more likely that theatre audiences in the sixties were tired of the upper classes and their love lives. They had seen enough of people who could afford to be angished elegantly in their flat in Paris and wanted to see anguish among the down-trodden. They wanted grit.
Noel Coward and Terence Rattigan were upstaged by the upstarts – just for a bit. But sexual politics and infidelity are a constant source of fascination. The Volcano is not yet quite spent.