Review: This Was A Man, Finborough Theatre
Published in The Telegraph, 18.07.2014
Everyone knows that Noel Coward and marriage go together like a horse and cheese. In that respect, this fizzy three-acter, banned by the Lord Chamberlain in 1926 and only now receiving its first professional production in the UK, tells us nothing new. Every character within is scarred by or stuck in a marriage. Divorcees date serial adulterers and husbands rue missed opportunities.
But Coward’s unpicking something more delicate too: that, beneath the surface, hidden by the armour of outwards appearances, people are brittle and bruised. Marriage is just one more front to be maintained.
Not for nothing is Coward’s protagonist, Edward Churt, a society portrait painter, who presents members of the Mahjong-and-matinee set looking their best (it’s the boastful “selfie” of its time). Churt’s an honest, humble thing – hair unbrushed, jumper moth-eaten – and his wife Carol is running rings around him, conducting a string of simultaneous affairs. To put things in order, best friend Evelyn – a military man as square as his own jawline – suggests a honey trap with a sting in the tail. It doesn’t go to plan.
Coward lets you see that nothing’s as simple as it seems. Carol isn’t “governed entirely by sex,” as gossip so claims. She’s the product of an unhappy marriage and aware that Edward’s long loved his closest confidante Zoe – “the one that got away”. Everyone has these missed connections, Coward says, and though he doesn’t condone adultery, he’s sympathetic to its causes. Relationships have their roots in happenstance and hurt, not true love and fate.
Was that the Lord Chamberlain’s complaint: the fear of pandemic divorce? There’s nothing remotely salacious here, even by the standards of the Twenties. The Vortex, with its drug-taking and sexual promiscuity, passed muster a year before, proving just how trigger-happy and scattershot censorship could be.
Still, you can see why the script has gone unproduced. An abrubt ending leaves it one act short of satisfaction and there’s a dearth of Coward’s best zingers. Belinda Lang’s production slightly overdoes the Cowardian style – vowels so strangulated, the ‘i’s come out bloodshot – but four careful characters studies are recompense enough.
Dorothea Myer-Bennett maintains Carol’s moral ambiguity by showing her wiles and her dread. Robert Portal is a clenched, controlled Evelyn and Jamie De Courcey lets Edward gradually find his footing. Best of all is Georgina Rylance’s Zoe, whose breezy confidence tails off the moment she’s alone. Everyone’s carrying their hurt, you realise, but no one’s revealing their heart.