Noël & Gertie [Cockpit Theatre]

Noël & Gertie
An entertainment devised by Sheridan Morley with the words & music of Noël Coward

Noël Coward – Ben Stock
Gertrude Lawrence – Helena Blackman

Thom Southerland – Director
Danielle Tarento – Producer
Stewart Nicholls – Choreographer
Michael Bradley – Musical Supervisor
David Warwick – Stage Setting
Howard Hudson – Lighting Designer
Anthony Coleridge – Sound Designer
Sophie Howard – Costume Designer

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 1 October, 2011
Venue: Cockpit Theatre, London NW1

Noël Coward (1899-1973) and Gertrude Lawrence (1898-1952) were the epitome of theatrical glamour. He was known as The Master, presumably because he was an all-round man of the theatre and of letters – writing for the stage, the cinema, novels, stories and autobiographies, composing the music and lyrics for some of the twentieth-century’s most enduring songs, and acting and directing in his own and others’ productions. Gertrude Lawrence was simply a very popular and charismatic performer in cabaret and revue in the 1920s, an actress in Coward’s plays in the 1930s, and the star of Kurt Weill’s Lady in the Dark in the 1940s. She died during the run of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I in which she created the part of Anna Leonowens. In his programme note to his show the late Sheridan Morley says that Coward gave Lawrence class while Gertie gave Noël sexuality.

Morley fashioned his ‘entertainment’ from the two biographies he wrote on his subjects, although most of the evening consists of Coward’s songs and excerpts from his plays and journals from which Morley constructed the linking material. Noel & Gertie was first performed in London in 1983 at the King’s Head in Islington with Simon Cadell and Joanna Lumley. It transferred to the West End and ran for nine years since when it has seen umpteen productions including one in New York with James Warwick as Noël and Twiggy as Gertie. It opens with Coward in signature red-velvet dressing-gown smoking up a storm and reminiscing about Gertie’s unique quality and her imperishable magic. In the background is playing his song ‘Someday I’ll find you’. And then, as if by magic, Gertie appears much as the ghost of Elvira did in Coward’s play Blithe Spirit, which Coward wrote for Lawrence. We are then kept amused by a potted biography of the pair working together including songs Coward wrote for her such as ‘Parisien pierrot’ and ‘I’ll see you again’, although she never sang it. They only worked together four times, and they both appeared in Blithe Spirit but not in the same production.

There are excerpts from that play, Private Lives and also Tonight at 8.30, a collection of nine short plays that they performed. Included here are Still Life which was later expanded into the screenplay of Brief Encounter, and The Red Peppers, a sketch about a tired married double-act still playing the halls. The highlight is ‘Has anybody seen our ship?’ in which they play two sailors on shore-leave with much enforced jollity played out to the audience. Backstage it’s a different story as man and wife bicker and torment each other.

Ben Stock makes an ideal Coward, enunciating well but without doing a slavishly camp imitation. He has a better singing voice than Noël’s and, like Coward, he’s a dab hand at the keyboard. Helena Blackman seems a little reserved as the charismatic Gertie, but she too has a better voice than Lawrence, although she could put a number across with tremendous panache. The Cockpit Theatre’s acoustic is not ideal without strong voice projection. There is chemistry between Stock and Blackman. They certainly perform well together and give Coward’s songs pizzazz, whether it be through the comedy of ‘(Don’t put your daughter on the stage) Mrs Worthington’, ‘Men about town’, ‘Why must the show go on?’ and ‘Sail away’ or the truly heartbreaking sentiments of ‘You were there’, ‘I travel alone’, ‘If love were all’, ‘Come the wild wild weather’ or ‘I’ll see you again’. The songs remain classics of their kind.

The production is steeped in elegance with an evocative and glamorous setting by David Warwick which is surrounded by tearsheets and covers from the scores of Coward’s most famous numbers. The show is subtly and evocatively lit by Howard Hudson. Thom Southerland directs his players with admirable simplicity, Stewart Nicholls’s choreography gives the show good pace. Coward was Britain’s finest and most prolific popular songwriter, while the indefinable star-quality of Gertrude Lawrence is something fleeting and immeasurable. Together they were a truly magical combination of talents.

  • Noel & Gertie is at the Cockpit Theatre, Gateforth Street, London NW1 until Saturday 22 October 2011
  • Tuesday to Saturday 7.30 p.m., matinees Saturday at 4 & Sunday at 5
  • Tickets on 020 7258 2925

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