Wednesday, August 22, 2012
Buttoned-Up Decadence: Noel Coward's 'Volcano' at the Vaudeville
Just when you think there's no danger of exposure to well-to-do characters who quaff martinis and stare into the middle distance or exchange banter with heavy sub-texts, along comes Volcano . I can't recommend this play for anyone who likes a modicum of tension and drama with their plays.
This is another production where the programme notes are much more interesting than the work itself, filling in some background to the the dying days of empire . The setting is partly based on Noel Coward's home in Jamaica, but also resembles the kind of South Pacific island that attracted writers and artists in the early twentieth century. In 1936 Coward had the distinction of being England's first tax-exile. It's a world of sleazy decadence made familiar by Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene and John Le Carre.
Volcano was never performed in Noel Coward's lifetime, despite his success with Blithe Spirit,(1941) Brief Encounter (1945)and Private Lives (1930). It's doubtful that it would have got past the censor as one of the characters is gay. The central relationship is based on an affair between Ian Fleming and a wealthy female plantation owner, so a potential producer could have risked a libel action.
A more immediate objection nowadays would be to the colourless characters and the lack of plot. Coward built his home in Jamaica but in keeping with the vogue at the time, the play is set in a fictitious island in the South Pacific. Apart from a lot of talk and cocktail drinking as well as some wincing (after an off-stage mule-trek up the volcano), almost nothing happens.
The acting, especially by Jenny Seagrove as the banana plantation owner in love with a philanderer, is fine. The characters themselves are so two-dimentional we don't really care what happens to them.
The best things about the production are the set and the atmospheric lighting - you really can believe you are on the fictitious Pacific island of Samolo - although the absence of servants and labourers is bizarre. Surely Jenny Seagrove is a bit frail to run a banana plantation, even though we know she's only overseeing it until her boy comes back from public school.
Judi Dench's daughter Finty Williams plays the bouncy half of a happily married pair, with a clear voice and some spirit but in this role there is nothing to challenge her.
I was interested to read that Coward's Home was called Blue Harbour - an adopted brand name for Marks and Spencer's range of Summer wear for men. Maybe the play has a connection to modern tax-dodgers, but the point is surely too obscure, and besides they tend to be all-too-involved with events at home instead of lounging about on tropical islands