The Marlowe, Canterbury
As the curtain raises, the audience bursts into a round of applause.
I’ve never known a set to be so warmly greeted before but this one justifies the response.
The 1920s country manor house is clad in wood panelling, with huge leaded windows. It’s alive with cluttered period detail and requires absolutely no suspension of disbelief.
And the performances of every cast member are very far from wooden – this is a bright and cheerful production, fizzing with energy and with Noel Coward’s script bouncing along at a frenetic rate.
The bohemian Bliss family have each invited a guest to stay for the weekend, much to each other’s dismay, and the exasperation of housekeeper Clara, and much of the fun comes from the family’s appalling hosting skills and the reactions of their horrified guests.
Felicity Kendal heads the cast as unconventional matriarch Judith, who has swapped a life on the London stage for a role as a domesticated country-dweller and chafes endlessly against the restrictions of her new life. This is never more evident than when she receives a kiss from house guest Richard Greatham (Michael Simkins), with her reaction turning the gesture from a spontaneous fleeting instance into a declaration of amorous intent which could signal the end of her marriage.
Kendal has many of the best lines and delivers them with relish, especially when draping herself dramatically over a banister or drawing on her character’s dubious acting skills during a game of charades.
Her apparent indifference to the arrival of guests other than her own is beautifully played, with careful precise movements showing that each action is deliberate and being carried out for maximum effect.
Simon Shepherd, who plays her husband David, feels rather underused in comparison to son and daughter Simon and Sorel (Edward Franklin and Alice Orr-Ewing), with a fleeting appearance in the first act, but all three make the most of their moments as each family member pairs off with a guest who is not their own.
There’s even a little nimbly executed and perfectly timed slapstick on the part of Simkins as he deals with a tricky barometer.
The four guests come into their own during the last act as they plot their escape over breakfast and their final sprint for the door, which goes entirely unnoticed by their bickering hosts, is thoroughly enjoyable.
This production isn’t breaking new ground and it’s not trying to put an avant-garde spin on 90-year-old material.
It plays totally to the strengths of an enduring classic, proving that in the right hands, less is most definitely more.