Noël Coward’s Waiting in the Wings

Waiting in the Wings – a play with songs by Noël Coward including ‘Waiting in the Wings’, ‘Champagne’, ‘Miss Mouse’, ‘Over the Hill’ (music by Norah Blaney), ‘Come the Wild, Wild Weather’, and ‘Oh, Mr Kaiser’

May Davenport – Frances Cuka
Cora Clarke – Jackie Skarvellis
Bonita Belgrave – Audrey Nicholson
Maudie Melrose – Estelle Collins
Deirdre O’Malley – Patricia Leventon
Almina Clare – Gillian Roy
Estelle Craven – Beryl Nesbitt
Perry Lascoe – David Lee-Jones
Sylvia Archibald – Josie Martin
Osgood Meeker – Cliff Burgess
Lotta Bainbridge – Juliet Aykroyd
Dora – Hilary Hodsman
Doreen – Jade Davidson
Sarita Myrtle – Maggie McCourt
Zelda Fenwick – Penelope Dudley
Doctor Jevons – Peter Evans
Alan Bennet – Rick Alancroft
Topsy Baskerville – Léonie Scott-Matthews

Aline Waites – Director
Léonie Scott-Matthews – Producer
Ashleigh German – Production Manager
John Dalton – Scenic Artist
Leo Woolcock – Lighting Designer
David Wykes – Piano Recordings

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 2 September, 2010
Venue: Pentameters Theatre, The Horseshoe, Oriel Place, Hampstead, London NW3

Noël Coward’s “Waiting in the Wings” was the writer’s fiftieth play, written in 1960 long after the great successes of “Hay Fever”, “Design for Living”, “Private Lives” and “Blithe Spirit” in the 1920s to the 1940s. By 1960 Coward was considered a little old-fashioned and “Waiting in the Wings” did not appeal to his regular producer Hugh ‘Binkie’ Beaumont. It was Michael Redgrave who managed to persuade several veteran actors and actresses to form a company to stage the play. The cast comprised Sybil Thorndike, Marie Lohr, Lewis Casson, Mary Clare, Nora Nicholson and Margot Boyd, along with Graham Payn, Coward’s partner.

The play, which was set in a home for aging retired actresses, opened originally in Dublin, Liverpool and Manchester on a short, pre-London tour and received good notices and warm receptions by audiences. In London the public also enjoyed the play but the critics did not and didn’t even offer encouragement to the actors’ performances.

Coward himself thought that the play contained some of his best writing. However the production lost money after a short run and it took nearly forty years to reach Broadway. Then, in 1999, even in a revised version by Jeremy Sams and with a cast headed by Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Harris, it was still not a success and closed after just over three months in New York.

So, does the play have a basic problem? Yes and no. At the time it was first staged (1960) the British (or at least London) theatre had changed with the arrival of plays such as John Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger” at the Royal Court, along with Arnold Wesker’s “Roots” trilogy, Ann Jellicoe’s “The Knack” and works by John Arden, Edward Bond and N. F. Simpson. The there was the rise of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop at Stratford East with Brendan Behan’s “The Quare Fellow”, Shelagh Delaney’s “A Taste of Honey”, Frank Norman and Lionel Bart’s “Fings Ain’t Wot they Used T’Be”, and Charles Chilton’s “Oh, What a Lovely War!”. These and other productions changed the face of British theatre and the likes of Terence Rattigan and Noël Coward were suddenly passé.

A talent as celebrated as Coward’s, however, would keep trying and eventually he came back into fashion but mainly for revivals of his earlier plays which in their day were just as controversial as “Look Back in Anger” and “Saved” were in theirs. “The Vortex” (1924), his first major hit, was about nymphomania and drugs, “Sirocco” (1927) dealt with free love, and “Design for Living” (1932, and currently back at the Old Vic) includes bisexuality and troilism. Not all of his plays dealt with such louche themes, however, for Coward was known particularly for the wit and humour in his plays and song-lyrics.

However, towards the end of his life, he finally wrote a play, “A Song at Twilight” (1966) in which he once and for all played an openly homosexual character, an aging actor with a secret past. Coward was from an era when one did not broadcast one’s most personal feelings so he never discussed in public his relationship with Graham Payn, which he always jokingly said might upset a few old ladies in Worthing.

The original production of “Waiting in the Wings” did have a starry cast, however, which attracted audiences of a certain age. Any play with Sybil Thorndike, Marie Lohr and Nora Nicholson would have its followers, but the critics at the time were unkind so that only hardened Coward fans kept the production going for its limited run. Looking at the play now, half-a-century on, it looks better in hindsight and, although written in the somewhat mannered style of the times, it still has something to say about companionship, betrayal, nostalgia, aging and loss. In fact it might even say more about life than, say, “Look Back in Anger”, which in many ways has dated faster than Coward.

‘The Wings’ is the name of a charity home for retired actresses, housing an assortment of characters from all walks of theatrical life with an emphasis on musical performance. Coward involved himself with many such charities and must have seen many of the inmates of the homes and indeed probably had friends who were their aging residents. They chatter, they gossip, they squabble, they remember the old days. They may now be retired but, as one of them says: “We’re still actresses in our hearts.” Always ready to offer a backhanded compliment, one of the old girls says of another, “She was good but unreliable.” Some, like Sarita Myrtle, are on the edge of dementia (a topical subject to this day) but the others gather round and humour her as best they can. Coward captures just the right sort of bitchy remarks that the theatrical profession has always dealt in, a profession where everybody is fighting everybody else for a plum role. When Maud Melrose, a former musical-comedy performer, announces that in “Miss Mouse” her number stopped the show, the rather superior Cora Clarke comments that: “So far as I remember it was the notices that stopped the show.”

The main action of the play, which takes place over a period of one year, from June 1959 to June 1960, centres around the arrival of a new resident, one Lotta Bainbridge. The other residents haven’t informed May Davenport of her arrival, as the two women had a feud many years before over the same man, Frank, who May thinks was stolen from her by Lotta. They haven’t spoken for thirty years and now old wounds will be opened up. Lotta is all for being friends but May refuses until a crisis hits the home and they find a reason to bond again. The rest of the plot concerns raising money to install a solarium which Perry, the home’s liaison officer, a former actor, has trouble convincing his committee of its necessity. He seeks help from another quarter and gets into trouble for it. Watching over them all is Sylvia Archibald, known as Miss Archie, who runs ‘The Wings’.

Much of the play is both touching and comic, a nice mixture of the good and bad sides of growing old. Of her part as Lotta, Sybil Thorndike thought that the scene when her long-lost son turns up out of the blue was “very cruel really but awfully funny.” Coward himself thought this scene and the one of reconciliation between Lotta and May were “two of the best scenes I have ever written” and he admitted that “I wrote “Waiting in the Wings” with loving care and absolute belief in its characters.”

It shows even now and on the whole it is a credible study of lonely old people living out their days together, not just waiting in The Wings (the residential home) but also waiting in the wings before the ultimate and inevitable happens. When Sarita, who still imagines she is performing in some long-forgotten production, is taken away to a mental hospital, we realise that she is really not long for this world, a salutary reminder for all the other residents who will one day go the same route.

A large cast of eighteen – probably too large for most theatre producers these days – acquit themselves very well in the relatively small Pentameters Theatre. The arrival of Lotta (Juliet Aykroyd), the Sybil Thorndike part, brings some fresh air to ‘The Wings’ where the other residents have become set in their ways and the everyday routines of meals at the same time with nothing much else to do in between except argue and take umbrage, making their entrances and exits in a state of excitement as if they were still acting, which most of them still are. Frances Cuka is particularly good as May, feeling cold and alone and suffering from the loss of Frank who, it turns out, was not such a loss anyway as he had other women on the go too.

Jackie Skarvellis is Cora, the bitch from hell, who hasn’t a good word to say for anybody, Estelle Collins is nicely common as Maud, a former revue artist, and Patricia Leventon gets some good laughs in a nicely judged Irish characterisation. David Lee-Jones in the Graham Payn role cannot do much with Perry, an underwritten part, but he copes well with what little he has to do. Maggie McCourt is moving as Sarita, the fantasist who is suffering from dementia. Miss Archie (Josie Martin) is a collar-and-tie job who in Coward’s day would have been called mannish. She’s a former entertainer from ENSA who looks after her aging charges with a fairly stiff rod of iron and carries on wearing her uniform and pyjamas rather than a skirt and nightdress because, well, that’s how she is.

Generally speaking, the company work well as a whole and director Aline Waites evinces the best from her cast, bringing out the affection that underneath most feel for each other despite their irritating and funny little ways. They have become institutionalised and know no other way to live.

There is a delightful finale to the show when, as the year has past and another new arrival is about to appear to replace the departing Sarita, the company go into their party-piece songs which Coward presumably wrote specially for the play and in tribute to the music-hall songs of his youth. The most well-known and the most complete of these songs is ‘Come the Wild, Wild Weather’, originally introduced by Graham Payn and here sung by David Lee-Jones. It is a touching piece about the importance of friendship: “Come the joy, come the pain, / We shall still be together / When our life’s journey ends, / For wherever we chance to go / We shall always be friends.”

The play unfolds at a leisurely pace but, and this is Coward’s own particular talent, he never lets it outstays its welcome. He knew how to construct a play and in “Waiting In the Wings” he shows his hand as a master of the theatre and as a great entertainer.

  • Performances until Saturday 18 September 2010, Tuesday to Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 5 p.m.
  • Tickets: 020 7435 3648

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