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Hat's off to Swanbank for doing Coward proud



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 Custard.

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 exaggerated.

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 material.

Coward, although gay, was never blatantly camp and to play Garry Essendine in that way misunderstands the character that Coward drew.

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 Puttnam.

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 productions.

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 wished.

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; Joe Trimmer.
Putney Arts Theatre, Ravenna Road, Putney London, SW15.

Fri, July 2 and Sat, July 3 @7.45pm (Mat::Sat 3rd @ 2.30 –
Box Office 0208 949 2901 - all tickets are £10.

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