Way back in the spring of 1980, dazzled with success at having directed a superb student production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome (a new translation no less) my friend Sue wanted to direct a summer production of Noel Coward’s Fallen Angels. I’d really enjoyed doing the Stage Management on Salome and I’d have been happy to have continued to refine that skill on Fallen Angels; but instead Sue insisted that she wanted me to play Willy. Gentle reader, I am no actor. We had some rehearsals and we struggled along, but in the end it all came to nothing. To this day I maintain that we could have been awesome except that we had the funding withdrawn; but really it was because we were useless.
Anyway, as a result, I’d always been keen to see a proper production of Fallen Angels, but they don’t seem to come round very often. The last Coward revival we saw, Volcano, was a terrible disappointment. However, out of the ashes of that lamentable lava, a couple of years on, here’s a revival of Fallen Angels directed by Roy Marsden (who directed Volcano), starring Jenny Seagrove (who starred in Volcano) and featuring Robin Sebastian (who featured in Volcano). I guess they must all be friends. I was concerned when I realised the extent of the extinct Volcano in this production, but I needn’t have worried. Whereas we thought Volcano was pretty awful, Fallen Angels is absolutely magic.
It’s a simple tale of two friends who have both been married for some time to their respective and respectable boring husbands, who love them for sure but the spark has definitely gone out of the relationships over the years. The prospect of renewed excitement comes when they hear from the mysterious Maurice, with whom both ladies were amorously occupied in the earlier flushes of their youth. Overcome with passion they fantasise about him; then they decide they can’t possibly meet him as it would jeopardise their marriages; then they decide they don’t really care about their marriages much anyway; and then they end up waiting for his arrival so long that they get dead drunk. Finally Maurice arrives (bad timing) when the husbands are back from the golf trip – so how are the wives going to extricate themselves from that mess? Considering Coward was still in his early twenties when he wrote this play, it shows very insightful understanding about relationships between partners and friends, both in and out of wedlock. All in all, it’s a delightful piece of writing.
Paul Farnsworth’s design has great feeling for the period with terrific costumes and a refined set, all with an excellent attention to detail. Jenny Seagrove’s Julia is a classy lady with natural quiet authority and 1920s chain-smoking sophistication. She exudes comfort and middle-class boredom with every languorous pose on the chaise-longue, and it’s a delight to watch her attempt to retain dignity as she loses her grip on her friendships and her sobriety. But the absolute highlight of the play is the sensationally funny performance by Sara Crowe as Jane, seething with pent-up frustration, getting bitchier as she gets progressively more inebriated; and you’ve never seen anyone get more of a sexual frisson out of remembering how attractive someone’s teeth were.
The second act is an incredible tour de force from both performers, as they grapple with the stresses of awaiting Maurice’s arrival, taking too much Dutch Courage on an empty stomach, indulging in highly competitive one-upwomanship, degenerating into verbal catfights, hurtling over the settee like horses at a gymkhana and engaging in some very silly shenanigans involving a pineapple. With its expertly timed and performed physical comedy it reminded me in part of the second act of Noises Off. It’s a wonderfully memorable and funny scene.
Added to all that there are excellent supporting performances by Tim Wallers and Robin Sebastian as the rather pompous and easily fooled Fred and Willy, and Philip Battley as the cosmopolitan but slimy Maurice; you could almost smell the stereotypical garlic. There’s a great scene where Maurice greets Fred by kissing him on both cheeks, and Mr Wallers’ utterly horrified reaction is completely hilarious; a simple comic device, but it works brilliantly. Finally there’s a superb comic performance by Gillian McCafferty as the know-it-all maid Saunders, who can play the piano better than her mistress, understands the intricacies of golf clubs better than her master, knows perfect French, and who’s been there and done that with all sort of subtle superiority over everyone else in her orbit. Coward really knew how to write an off-the-wall maid, and this is one of the best.
The whole production is a comic triumph and left the very full audience at the Royal helpless with laughter. It’s touring till the end of March and I can absolutely recommend it not only as a really funny evening out, but also as a splendid example of how what might be regarded as a dated drawing-room comedy can still have relevance and pack a magic punch.
PS From our seats in Row C of the stalls, I’ve never felt such a rush of cold air into the auditorium as when the curtain went up at the beginning of the play. The cast must have been absolutely perishing!