Theatre Royal Windsor (venue)
11 March 2019 (released)
12 March 2019
If, like me, you associate Noel Coward with mocking froufrou you will find this play a thought-provoking surprise. It was written in 1965, towards the end of his illustrious career, when his popularity was waning. Coward performed in it himself. As this was to be his last appearance on the West End Stage, you could say it was his own swan song.
The play is set in an elegant apartment in Switzerland. A beautiful view through wide windows of a still, dark lake provides the backdrop for the emotional maelstrom that the characters are torn through.
Simon Callow is superb as Hugo Latymer, a successful but ageing writer suffering from a condescending view of other people. He indulges himself in self-centred grumpiness, lashing out spitefully at his long-suffering wife whilst whining with neediness.
Hilde Latymer is sensitively played by Jessica Turner. She admires Hugo’s brilliance, cares for him with tenderness, Teutonic efficiency, inner strength and dignity. She gently rebukes him for insulting her and chides him for lacking “the knack of discovering the best in people instead of the worst”.
Ash Rizi is sprightly and youthful as the waiter Felix, providing a useful focal point for the characters to demonstrate their own regrets and desires.
Hugo imagines Hilde will be worried about a meeting he is about to have with Carlotta, a lover from his distant past. She is tellingly insouciant and happy to go out with a friend and leave them to have their reunion alone.
When she joins the action, Jane Asher’s stunning Carlotta sweeps through the door in a beautiful dark cocktail dress with a slender fitted top above a voluminous skirt. Her fiery red hair emphasises the vitality with which she unsettles Hugo. Although she looks the part, some of Asher’s lines are delivered with a monotone timbre reminiscent of John Major. However, this doesn’t detract from the brilliance of Coward’s script. Carlotta fights against Hugo’s pompous disdain with a forthright ribaldry that offends him and makes him increasingly uncomfortable. The encounter is an intense verbal sparring match with Carlotta driving home a decisively wounding jab at the end of the first act.
The second act takes us through tumultuous passion and revelation, delivering profound insights into the human condition. The play highlights the uneasy balance of private versus public life. The question of whether someone’s work is more important than their reputation is particularly relevant in our age of “cheap magazine sentimentality”.