(Telegram from Noel Coward to Gertrude Lawrence upon her marriage, in 1940, to her second husband Richard Aldrich.)

Gertrude Lawrence and Noël Coward were soul mates. They irritated and delighted each other as only true soul mates can. They first met each other at Liverpool Rep in 1915 as theatrical ingénues. According to Coward: “[she] gave me an orange and told me a few mildly dirty stories, and I loved her from then onwards.”

She inspired him to write many of his best plays and after she died of an undiagnosed cancer at the age of 54 he wrote her obituary through a veil of tears.

In 1983 Sheridan Morley, who had been the biographer to both, was moved to write Noël and Gertie; a musical play made up of a patchwork of Coward’s plays, songs and diaries and the letters and telegrams between the two. After opening at the Kings Head, Islington with Simon Cadell and Joanna Lumley (Morley’s first cousin) in the title roles it would run in the West End for nine years.

The current revival tour was mounted to mark the tenth anniversary of Sheridan Morley’s death. Ben Stock and Helen Power are the eponymous leads with Jonathan Lee offering musical support on piano. They came to the Art Centre last night.

Enough of the history lesson, was it any good?

Yes. Some might complained it’s a bit linear and old fashioned. Well it’s a biography of two people born while Queen Victoria was still on the throne told, mostly, their own words. Text speak is going to be thin on the ground. No smilies were available. Lol. But in fact it’s both a throw-back and a throw-forward to some historic and contemporary theatrical fashions.

On one hand the melding of variety, songs and play excerpts is reminiscent of the stage revues of the 1920’s. On the other hand the mash up of biography and Noël Coward’s musical back catalogue predate the fashion for “jukebox musicals”, initiated by Abba’s Mamma Mia, by more than 15 years.

There’s nothing new in the world.

Helen Power as “Gertie” is long-necked, lithe, elegant but playful, carrying the more physical and musical numbers. As Lawrence she’s as playfully brittle and brash as a Golden Age actress should be. Ben Stock, as “Coward”, provides more of an emotional anchor to the piece. Whenever Gertie is centre-stage he only has eyes for her. His gaze never betrays her, no matter how much she amuses or infuriates him. In the scenes from the Cowardian comedies both actors mine the playful absurdities, but are also capable of getting the most out of the stiff-upper lip tragedy from extracts of “Still Life” (later Brief Encounter at the cinema with Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard).

In the end the play ends as history demands. Noël discovers Gertie’s death via a stray newspaper headline and the light leaves his eyes, never to return to its full brightness.

But, aptly for the author of Blithe Spirit, he gets one last duet with his late beloved. After that she leaves the stage and he extinguishes the dressing room lights, sparing her poster on the back wall of the set one last glance. History is satisfied; drama fulfilled.

“Noël and Gertie” tours until April.



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