“Well, well, well! Mussolini has resigned! Of all pompous demagogues there is the one who has personally irritated me most.” So nonchalantly opined Noël Coward in July 1943 in a diary he kept as he voyaged with a naval convoy on a mission to entertain the troops, alternately sunbathing as he neared Gibraltar and scrabbling for his tin hat at the sight of enemy aircraft.
Few rose better to the challenge of morale-boosting during difficult times than this theatrical die-hard, and it’s slightly disconcerting to realise that the closest we have to a cheerleader of his sort today is Andrew Lloyd Webber; ou sont les autres?
The ostensible prompt for A Marvellous Party – a 50-minute, star-studded online assortment of Coward songs, curiosities and bons mots – is the centenary of his West End debut, aged 19: his first play I’ll Leave it To You transferred to the New (now the Noël Coward) Theatre in July 1920. The immediate worthy objective is to elicit donations to two funds to help actors through this dark period of Covid-induced closure (Acting for Others in the UK, the Actors Fund in the US). If you can watch an appeal from Judi Dench (with accompanying anecdote about having once shaken the Master’s hand – “I will never forget the smell of his aftershave – I wouldn’t wash it off for ages!”) without reaching for your credit card, you’re a beast. The wider purpose, of course, is to keep spirits raised as the dread saga continues.
And in this it succeeds. A Marvellous Party derives its title from a late 1930s number inspired by a frightful gathering on the Côte d’Azur at which Coward was exhorted to perform, and refused; it bears fictional witness to a comically snootish and outlandish soirée with characteristic clipped wit (“People’s behaviour /Away from Belgravia/ Would you make you aghast”). Patricia Routledge warbles it as the big finale, lending synthetic laughter to the acidic refrain: “I couldn’t have liked it more!”
Coward songs of perennial appeal and even contemporary relevance, such as There Are Bad Times Just Around the Corner and Mrs Worthington, are alas not on the menu. Overall, the selection inclines too heavily towards the romantically wistful. That said, A Room with a View is sweetly crooned by Kate Royal and Julian Ovenden, the pair framed against a black-and-white London skyline and the implicit backdrop of PPE-free trysts of yore.
Stephen Fry and Emma Thompson – captured on desktop cameras amid their own book-lined domestic havens – proffer the unexpected. In his case, The Bar on the Piccola Marina, a drolly pitying portrait-poem of a drink-addled but liberated lady. In hers, the sardonic short story of unhappy Mrs Mallory, who possesses “a definite feeling of dissatisfaction with life in general and Mr Mallory in particular”, and finds herself briefly released from the cares of modern American life on a psychiatrist’s couch.
There’s a bit of glancing at scripts – forgivably so in the case of Indira Varma’s entertainingly spot-on evocation of a gushing fan, in the monologue Social Grace. Derek Jacobi memorably quivers with nostalgic emotion in Coward’s lyrical memoir of his showbiz baby-steps (“I remember…”). Elsewhere, amid piquant clips and snaps of the determinedly smiling star himself, as well as faces familiar and less so (some from the other side of the pond), up like a jack-in-the-box pops Robert Lindsay, alone at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, dispensing deadpan aphorisms.
Coward’s advice on acting? “The simple fact is that you have to speak clearly, and don’t trip over the furniture. And if you need motivation you think of your pay-cheque on Friday.” Those were the days.