Suite in Three Keys: This remarkable Noël Coward triptych is exactly what the National ought to be doing

Suite in Three Keys: Emma Fielding, Tara Fitzgerald and Stephen Boxer
Suite in Three Keys: Emma Fielding, Tara Fitzgerald and Stephen Boxer - Steve Gregson

“To be famous young and to make fame last – the secret of combining the two is glandular: it depends on energy,” the critic Kenneth Tynan declared in 1953 in awed appreciation of Noël Coward’s youthfulness. But not even The Master could out-race “Time’s wingèd chariot”; a decade on, in his mid-60s, he even visited a Swiss specialist for supposedly rejuvenating injections of animal embryo cells. With his health fading, his temper frayed.

Suite in Three Keys, a tragicomic triple-bill first presented in 1966, was a star-vehicle designed to bring the elder statesman back to the stage for a last galvanising hurrah – and an elegiac reckoning with mortality. Set in the same suite of a Swiss hotel – to which travellers of a certain age repair seeking miracle treatments at a nearby “clinique” – it predates Neil Simon’s comparable Plaza Suite but digs deeper, evidencing sharp comic claws and penetrating insights.

The most familiar, and strongest, of the trio is A Song at Twilight. Though some detect Somerset Maugham as the model for its irritable, haunted central character – a successful elderly writer ambushed (by an actress and former lover) with publishable evidence of his closeted homosexual leanings – there’s clearly some self-portraiture. Times were changing and liberation was in the air, but for Coward and his kind masking the truth was ingrained.

Though the two ageing male protagonists in the companion double-bill (Shadows of the Evening; Come into the Garden, Maud) are heterosexual, set side by side – the feat achieved by Tom Littler’s revelatory, in-the-round revival  (stealing a march on the National Theatre, which neglects this kind of endeavour)  – the plays resemble a triptych mirror in which we catch the author in different attitudes of self-reckoning.

Where in Twilight, there’s the sobbing acknowledgement of a life not truly lived, in Shadows, a publisher informed that he’s terminally ill resolves, in the teeth of concerted amity by his partner and the wife he abandoned, to face his end with sentimentality-avoiding rigour. And in the skittishly titled (after Tennyson) third play, there’s a regressive lunge at a fling, as a tired US businessman henpecked by his spoilt wife is seduced by the overtures of a carefree Sicilian princess.

Tara Fitzgerald in a Suite in Three Keys
Tara Fitzgerald in a Suite in Three Keys - Steve Gregson

Just the staying-power (and memory retention) required of the principals should win awards for Stephen Boxer, Emma Fielding and Tara Fitzgerald (with Steffan Rizzi nabbing his scene-stealing opportunities as a waiter). Boxer is now 74, but even if he doesn’t fully reinvent himself each time, whether he’s waspishly testy or drolly hangdog he alertly inhabits each character’s enforced grappling with life-changing revelations.

Fielding shows her range as the coolly cordial publisher’s wife, darting daggers at her female rival, turns comic, purple-haired gorgon as the American businessman’s entitled other half, and registers buried hurt as the defensive famous author’s taken-for-granted and infinitely tolerant German-born helpmeet. Fitzgerald has seldom been better, either: gut-wrenched as the prospective widow in Shadows, floozily impetuous as the Sicilian temptress and memorably funny and insouciant in an outlandish 60s beehive as the barbed, wily actress wielding that stash of incriminating old letters like a stick of dynamite.


Until July 6 (orangetreetheatre.co.uk), then at the Theatre Royal Bath (theatreroyal.org.uk) from July 9-13