Music and lyrics from Noël Coward’s musical comedies, plays and revues including: Set to music; Tonight at 8.30; Sigh no more; Pacific 1860; Words and Music; Private Lives; Operette; Bitter Sweet
Sir John Standing – Singer & Narrator
Stuart Barr – Musical Director & Pianist
Reviewed by: Michael Darvell
Reviewed: 19 April, 2009
Venue: Pizza on the Park, Knightsbridge, London
In terms of musical comedy and the writing of song lyrics, Britain probably had no better contender for the Grandmaster of these arts than Noël Coward. His output stretched across almost half of the twentieth century with his earliest songs dating from 1916 through to his last show, “The girl who came to supper” (1963). “High spirits”, a musical based on his play “Blithe spirit”, appeared in 1964 (only one song is by Coward). His plays have been revived at regular intervals all around the world, while many of his countless songs (over 300) have never left us, having been anthologised in many shows and cabarets.
Hampstead Theatre has just presented “Private Lives”, Chichester Festival Theatre is currently staging “Hay fever” with Diana Rigg, recently there was a film version of Coward’s play “Easy virtue” and a stage version of “Brief Encounter” is touring the UK. André Previn has also turned the original play, “Still life”, on which the film of “Brief Encounter” was based, into an opera to be premiered in May 2009 by Houston Grand Opera.
Noël Coward died in 1973, as old as the century, a child of his time and to a certain extent of a time that he helped create and made his own. John Osborne once said of Coward that he was “his own invention and contribution to this century”, a world that was a long way from real life. He was invalided out of the First World War with a tubercular condition, but in the Second worked secretly for British Intelligence and, at Churchill’s behest, entertained the troops. Apart from war-work and making an anti-Nazi film “In which we serve”, based loosely on the life of Lord Mountbatten of Burma, Coward experienced a protected, not to say charmed, journey through life, one in which he insisted on travelling first class. But then his talents were many and varied and he worked very hard at what he did and created his own sense of style alongside his vast output of writing.
Although he ventured into straight drama in such works as “The Vortex” – his first really successful play and one that dealt with nymphomania and drug addiction – Coward generally stuck to musical comedy and satirical revue. He went on to write many more plays and musicals such as “Easy virtue”, “Hay fever”, “Private lives”, “Cavalcade”, “Tonight at 8.30”, “Present laughter” and “Blithe spirit”.
Thus was his life spent in the theatre, an artificial world of supposed glamour. Coward himself was the epitome of chic and the abiding picture most of us have of him is an elegant man in a dressing-gown smoking. The dressing-gown came from his having worn one in “The vortex”, since when this fashion stayed with him.
In his cabaret of songs by and stories about Coward, actor John Standing tells us a little about the man and his music. The most noticeable quality that Coward had, according to Sir John was his shininess: a shiny face, shiny hair, shiny suit and shiny shoes, a constantly-well-polished man. When he met Coward at a function Standing was in battledress and apologised for it. “Not at all”, said Coward, “you look utterly divine in brown”.
Being a friend of the family, Standing knew Coward from when he, Sir John, was about ten years old. His family had been actors for as long as anyone can remember. His great grandfather was the actor Herbert Standing, his grandfather, Sir Guy Standing, went to Hollywood and appeared in “Lives of the Bengal Lancers”, his grandmother was actress Dorothy Hammond, while his mother was Kay Hammond, who appeared as Elvira the ghost in Coward’s “Blithe spirit”. His stepfather was the actor John Clements.
Try as they may, many performers who do a Coward impersonation never quite get it right. Standing, far from attempting to mimic The Master, does a good impression with the clipped vowels and distinct enunciation that Coward had. Apparently this came from talking to his mother who was deaf and to whom he had to speak clearly. Sir John opens with ‘I’ve been to a marvellous party’ which he recites rather than sings and he does it in a very intimate way as if he’s imparting some particularly juicy piece of gossip. It is more of a monologue than a song and can either be sung parlando or recited. It tells of all the bright young things and their terrible goings-on when everybody gets fried: “We knew the excitement was bound to begin / When Laura got blind on Dubonnet and gin / And scratched her veneer with a Cartier pin, / I couldn’t have liked it more.”
Coward never learnt to write or read music although he still composed many great melodies with a third party. However, it is his skill as a lyricist that proves he was the perfect wordsmith. Most of his songs tell a story in very ordinary language but peppered, like Cole Porter’s, with recognisable things, names and places. He, also like Porter, is very good at list songs and Coward even rewrote Porter’s ‘Let’s do it, let’s fall in love’ with his own sometimes scurrilous lyrics about famous people ‘doing’ it. He also rewrote Porter’s ‘You’re the top’, ‘Let’s fly away’, ‘Fresh as a daisy’, and even drafted a sequel to Cole’s ‘Thank you so much, Mrs Lowsborough-Goodby’. When Porter was having trouble getting rhymes for ‘Siberia’, a song from his last musical, “Silk stockings”, he sought the help of Coward, who never hid the fact that he used a rhyming dictionary.
Sir John gives us the Las Vegas version of Coward’s ‘Let’s do it’, written for Coward’s US cabaret appearances. This one has: “Louella Parsons can’t quite do it / For she’s so highly strung, / Marlene might do it, /But she looks far too young.” However, as many have done before him, Sir John swaps Marlene for Madonna, just to make it more topical.
The most celebrated songs of Coward are included here such as ‘Nina’ (she wouldn’t dance!), ‘Uncle Harry’ (he’s not a missionary now), ‘The stately homes of England’, ‘In the bar on the Piccolo Marina’, ‘There are bad times just around the corner’, which has suddenly become apt today, and ‘Mad dogs and Englishmen’, a song that Coward became weary of performing, so latterly sang it at top speed.
Sir John has a good voice for putting over the comic songs but seems a little strained during the more romantic numbers such as ‘You were there’, ‘Some day I’ll find you’ and ‘I’ll see you again’. However, they do add variety to this cornucopia of amazing music and lyrics. One of Coward’s best list songs is ‘I wonder what happened to him’, a tale from the days of the Raj when visitors to the Officers’ Club are curious about their dwindling numbers. “Have you had any word / Of that bloke in the ‘Third’, / Was it Southerby, Sedgwick or Sim? / They had him thrown out of the club in Bombay / For, apart from his mess bills exceeding his pay, / He took to pig sticking in quite the wrong way. / I wonder what happened to him!”
This is Coward at his funniest and sharpest, the master of le mot juste. These are timeless classics and a suitable reminder that Noël Coward was Britain’s greatest songsmith, and a unique one at that. There will never be another like him.
- John Standing sings Coward at Pizza on the Park, 11-13 Knightsbridge, London SW1 until 4 May 2009: Sundays at 3 p.m. & 7 p.m and Mondays at 7.45
- Extended to 5-9 May: Tuesday-Saturday 7.45 p.m., plus Friday & Saturday at 10.15 p.m.
- Tickets: 08456 027 017
- American Songbook in London