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COWARD – White Bear Theatre, London.

cowardImagine having a quip suitable for every occasion. Each time an uncomfortable response is called for, imagine having the mental agility to create the perfect line that would make ladies titter, chaps say, “Oh very good, yes!” and the person who asked the awkward question slink away from the scene entirely. Imagine being Noël Coward.

Waspish and camp, the main character in Coward is a tremendous portrayal of the real man behind one of the most famous personas in 20th century Theatre. He’s as demanding and petulant as you would think, extracting loyalty from everyone whilst remaining true only to his own ego. We see a version of what he would be like in public, but this play gives us an intimate view of Coward off stage, in his bedroom, his parlour, among those most trusted in his life. Still the man finds it a wrench not to be dismissively flippant about every situation and throughout, ultimately reveals himself to be damaged, unlikable and cold.

This isn’t a true story, but inspired loosely by real events. They key here is that the characterisation is so good, the events depicted could have taken place. As per his habit, Coward takes a fancy to a handsome young actor, Leonard, and sets out to use him as a social accessory and as a bedroom plaything. That the young man in question has a girlfriend, is religiously Catholic and doesn’t drink barely registers as anything other than a challenge to him. His seduction and inevitable breakdown as well as Coward’s sneering at everyone and everything is witnessed by the third and final character, Coward’s discreet and fervently loyal valet Cole.

The three men (Jake Urry as Coward, Josh Taylor as Leonard and Peter Stone as Cole) have a fantastic chemistry on stage and seamlessly they work together to create a big story in a small room. Coward is taken from being a vain, demanding employer to being a “demanding queen” pestering Leonard for sex he doesn’t want to give. Noël finishes up by revealing that his cold exterior is masking his damaged psyche, giving the audience a fairly complete character that always had the possibility of veering off into caricature.

The White Bear is intimate to say the least, a closeness that the production has turned to its favour giving the audience a view on the action that’s both documentarian and voyeuristic. There’s a fascination here with the characters but alongside grows guilt at watching one man so thoroughly damage another in the pressurised pursuit of some grubby sex.

Throughout there are constant, and consistent, jokes and reminders why Coward as a wit is so feted. He was a creative genius, truly. James Martin Charlton, the pen behind this play, is clearly talented but isn’t up to the standard of the man who actually made his servant call him “master”.  He has still turned out a fantastic portrait of a famous figure and greatly added to our understanding of him. The work is fresh, it is funny, it teaches lessons on a micro and macro scale and it is well worth booking as soon as you can as the White Bear can’t hold that many people in the audience.

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Reviewed 24/10/13

By Karl O’Doherty

22nd Oct – 10th Nov 2013
White Bear Theatre, London, SE11. 

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