Review by David Munro
COWARDY Custard was an entertainment devised
to be the Mermaid Theatre’s contribution to the 1972 City
of London Festival. Intended to run eight weeks, it ran for over
a year, ending up with a total of 405 performances.
Although not the first compendium revue of Coward works, that
honour went to Noel Coward’s Sweet Potato some
four years earlier, in New York, it was the first one that Coward,
himself, took a hand in, and even suggested the title.
The original production, as devised by Gerald Frow, Alan Strachan
and Wendy Toye, drew on Coward’s other writings, poems and
extracts from books as well as his songs, plays and revue sketches.
This format has been followed by later compendium reviews, but,
to my mind, it never worked as well as it does in Cowardy
Swanbank are therefore to be applauded for reviving it and giving
us a chance to hear and see it again as it was originally intended
to be performed.
I wish I could endorse their efforts wholeheartedly but I am
afraid I cannot.
Coward is notoriously difficult to perform, even by professionals,
and his throwaway and clipped style, so interminably imitated,
becomes artificial if the emphasis is out of place, or the inflections
This is particularly true of his comedy songs, where one can
so easily fall into the trap, as did some of the players last
night, of pointing the lyrics to the detriment of the music. Norfolk
was not the only thing that was flat last night.
Having said that, there were moments which even the Master would
have enjoyed; Cynthia Carss’ hilariously bibulous rendering
of Marvellous Party for one.
Her vulgar, paralytic socialite drove out memories of Beatrice
Lillie, Patricia Routledge and all those other ladies who sought
to make it their own. Cynthia - the floor is yours!
Jonny Clines, too, reinforced the very favourable impression
I had of him from last year's Forum,
although the majority of his evening was spent in company of others
in male quartets and supporting appearances.
However, when he was given solos – Nina, in particular–
and duets, he seized them and firmly made them his own.
Similarily Mick Pardoe, whose voice was used to full effect in
the opening excerpt from Tokay but thereafter was left
to languish in the background.
His London by Night was stylish and showed he could
point a number perfectly, but I wish he could have been let loose
on some of Coward’s more musically powerful ballads.
One or two of which were left in none too safe hands. His introduction
to Twentieth Century Blues was a tantalising taste of
what might have been.
Another performer who impressed me appears in the list of numbers
as John, but there is no John in the cast list, other than the
director, John Hebden.
If it was he, then I congratulate him on his successful wearing
of two hats and several personalities, as I have a strong suspicion
at least some of the numbers credited to him should have been
credited to other members in the cast.
But then I found the programme very difficult to follow, so
I may have been mistaken in this.
I guess, however, that the real John was the one who showed he
was able to deliver the numbers as Coward wrote them, to wit
I Like America from Ace of Clubs.
Peter St James and his brother? Paul appeared indefatiguable,
although I sometimes disagreed with their interpretations of their
Coward, although gay, was never blatantly camp and to play Garry
Essendine in that way misunderstands the character that Coward
Coward, by all accounts, was always
keen to eliminate effeminacy from his characters and the actors
who played them, so he would not, like another old Queen, have
been amused by this, nor by the waspish manner assumed by Joe
This latter was so outré in many of his characterisations
that one felt sorry that he had thereby spoiled what could have
been very good performances.
Jim Trimmer, after a shaky start, was effective in his solo spots,
although he seemed happier in ensemble work, as did Douglas Bell.
James Cowling, although prominent in the ensemble, did not, to
my mind, exploit the full potential in Alice Is At It Again.
The linking narration was charmingly executed by Don Fellowes,
whose transatlantic accent underlined Coward’s affection
for and connection with the States.
On the distaff side, I have already mentioned Cynthia Carss.
Although Swanbank inevitably have geese in their productions,
they also have swans and the Queen of these is Billie Stephens,
star of many of their past productions, who is hopelessly underused
and valued in this production.
Apart from a very funny rendition of The Spinning Song
and a few throwaway solos, such as in Mad About The Boy,
she is reduced to virtually chorus work, which trouper that she
is, she clearly does not resent.
I hope the company’s swan upper will be allow her to spread
her wings next year and give her a part appropriate to her talents.
May I suggest Mama Rose or Mrs Sally Adams, for starters?
A newcomer, Miranda Fellowes, is very funny, dances well and
was excellent in all she appeared in. I especially enjoyed her
frenetic rendering with John Anon of the Beatnik Love Affair
from Sail Away. I look forward to seeing her in future
Fiona Delany also had a good sense of what was required in selling
a Coward song, her Twentieth Century Blues was very movingly
performed, but she showed, in Any Little Fish and others,
that she could handle point numbers just as well, if required.
Mad Dogs and Englishmen is such an old warhorse that
one wonders why anyone still bothers to ride it. Lola Gibberd,
however, managed to do so very successfully and found new life
in the beast.
Space prevents me from commenting more fully on the other ladies
of the cast , Jane Jenkinson Lucy Martin, Felicity Sainsbury and
Rebecca Brown, save to say they each shone in their solos.
Felicity and Lucy particularly in Mad About The Boy,
Jane in the Tessie O’Shea - London Is a Little Bit of
Alright number from The Girl Who Came to Supper,
and Rebecca as the demented tourist in Useful Phrases.
The music was provided on two pianos by Clive Swan and Jenny
Albon who well deserved the appreciation they received from the
cast and audience.
All things considered, this was a very good attempt and I felt,
as did the audience, that it resulted in a very successful evening,
even if it was not always as Coward had intended, or might have
All who took part in it are to be congratulated for the style
and effort they put into what was a very difficult task.
As with all amateur productions, the show could do with pruning
and at least half an hour cut from the running time, but I am
sure that will have been corrected after the first night.
I look forward to their next venture into the world of revue
- on their showing with this, it should be a memorable occasion.
Cowardy Custard, based on the works and writings of
Noel Coward; devised by Gerald Frow, Alan Strachan and Wendy Toye.
Produced by Swan Bank Music.
Director, John Hebden; Design and Costumes, the cast and company;
Lighting, Chris Liddle; Music Director, Clive Swan.
CAST: Douglas Bell; Rebecca Brown; Cynthia Carss; Jonny Clines;
James Cowling; Fiona Delaney; Don Fellows; Miranda Fellows; Lola
Gibbard; Jane Jenkinson; Lucy Martin; Mick Pardoe; Joe Putnam;
Felicity Sainsbury; Billie Stephens; Paul St James; Peter St James;
Putney Arts Theatre, Ravenna Road, Putney London, SW15.
Fri, July 2 and Sat, July 3 @7.45pm (Mat::Sat 3rd @
Box Office 0208 949 2901 - all tickets are £10.