City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

Noel Coward 's Tonight at 8.30 Review

By Vivien Devlin - Posted on 19 August 2012

Show details
Oxford Trinity College Theatre Company
Running time: 
Tom Elliot
Lucinda Smart (Piggie/ Elsie), Howard Coase (Peter/Henry), Rebecca Newman (Walters), Priya Mainwaring (Mrs Wadhurst), Doug Grang (Mr Wadhurst), Andy Butler (Mr Burnham), Lucy Rands (Clare/Dorris), Nick Fanthorpe (Bogey), George Ferguson (Ally Corbett)

After the resounding success of his satirical, romantic comedy, Private Lives,  Noel Coward decided on an ambitious theatrical concept to entice an audience, not just once, but night after night. As he wrote, "A short play can sustain a mood without technical creaking or over padding."

“Tonight at 8.30” is a series of ten one-act plays, three performed each evening, written specifically to show off his own acting skills and his “exquisite” co-star Gertrude Lawrence.  Premiered in 1935, Tonight at 8.30 was a smash hit, transferring from London to New York in 1936.

This Trinity College company has selected two half hour sketches from this collection, “Hands across the Sea” and “Fumed Oak”.

Coward was a brilliant social observer who mingled with royalty, aristocracy, rich and famous celebrities.  Created as an affectionate caricature of his friends, the Mountbattens (with whom he holidayed on their Mediterranean yacht), “Hands Across the Sea” is an hilarious comedy of ill manners set at an upper class London cocktail party.

The hostess, Lady Gilpin (aka Piggie), dressed in glamorous black gown, is eccentric to the point of scatty,  while her husband Lord Peter,  in black tie and  tuxedo,  rarely gets a word in edgeways, and can’t wait to escape back to his job as a Naval commander.

Piggie has no sense of hospitality to greet her six guests, and spends most of time answering the phone to gossip with friends – “Yes, pretty girl, fat legs!”  - while everyone else talks at the same time, across each other.

Stuck in the middle, a young couple who have just arrived from overseas,  describe their rubber planatation life in Malaya to which they are curiously asked, “Do you know the Beckwiths in Burma?" .... “But we live in Penang” ...“ They are in rubber, ....or is tea?”

Piggie and Peter clearly haven’t a clue who their Colonial visitors are and the main plot centres around an embarrassing case of mistaken identity.

Production values, classy accents, music, costumes, drawing room set, sound effects, (especially the ringing telephone), it’s all directed by Tom Elliot with farcical pace and timing. The whole cast is terrific, especially Lucinda as Piggie, and Lucy as Clare.  Absolutely spiffing!

(N.B.  A theatre programme giving character names  would have been helpful to avoid confusion).    

In contrast sadly, the companion piece “Fumed Oak” is a misjudged choice of play for four students, who attempt, but fail,  to portray a middle aged couple, elderly grandmother and schoolgirl. This is a dysfunctional working class family where father has a miserable existence in a household of whining women.  The play was described by Coward himself, as an “unpleasant comedy …  the characters are nothing more than a music hall joke.”   Unpleasant is the word.

Another play in the Tonight at 8.30 series is Still life (filmed as Brief Encounter), which would have created the perfect double bill for this talented ensemble.This is Oxford Trinity College’s first Fringe production with a short run of the show during the middle week.   A shame, as there was a long queue outside on day 2 (at 11am), showing a popular demand for an appetising hour of Cowardly wit before lunch.

Run ended.