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O'Mara delivers a 40-carat jewel of a Marquise

Review by David Munro

THE Marquise is very much one of Coward's lesser works. Written to fulfil a promise to Marie Tempest - a Grande Dame of the Twenties' theatre - it was, as Coward admitted, tailored for Marie Tempest's particular charms and mannerisms, and never really had any life after its original production in 1927.

Both Margaret Lockwood and Evelyn Laye toured in it after the last war, but neither took it into London. The last major production, to date, was with Moira Lister, in 1981.

The plot is a typical Coward comedy of manners set in the 18th Century, Raoul is the former lover of the Marquise and they have a child, Adrienne, who is unaware of her parentage.

Raoul wants to marry Adrienne to Miguel, son of his best friend, Esteban, but this pleases neither of the children; Adrienne loves her father's secretary, and Miguel, a dancer in Paris.

The Marquise re-appears and sorts the children's problems out, at the same time setting Raoul and Esteban at loggerheads, when it transpires that she was mistress to both and is, incidentally, the mother of Miguel.

All is finally resolved and the Marquise, having admitted she is no Marquise, but has really earned her living as an actress, is left with Raoul as she had intended from the outset.

This farrago of nonsense requires a very high standard of stylised comedy acting, which is not in vogue in the 21st Century - as the fairly dreadful recent revivals of Coward plays has shown.

Presumably, therefore, if the play has to be revived - which I find questionable - it must be with an actress who can overcome the artificiality of the plot and dialogue, and give some substance and life to the part of the eponymous Marquise and, in Kate O'Mara, the producer, Bill Kenwright, has found the perfect one.

From her first entrance, through the French windows of Tim Shortall's gracious set, she dominates the cast and the play. Hers is a comedy performance of the first order.

She litters the stage with Coward's throwaway one-line aphorisms; produces a pair of pistols from her luggage with an insouciance which defies logic; wears her period costumes as though they were her everyday clothes, and generally manages to enchant the audience, as well as the other characters, with a performance that is witty, elegant and touching.

Luckily, for once, the rest of the cast are able to match her performances with sufficient expertise to make Coward's fustian situations believable and funny.

Dennis Lill's Count has just the right amount of phlegm and pomposity to set off the shine of Miss O'Mara's artistry, and still make his final curtains acceptance of his love for her realistic.

Michael Jayston's Esteban is a perfect foil for him in every sense of the word.

The third act duel was a masterpiece of comic timing - and he makes his third act escape from the Marquise, with a mental sigh of relief, plausible.

The three young people are also in safe hands.

Zoie Kennedy is an Adrienne who is undoubtedly her mother's daughter, in the same way that Ben Warwick is clearly the progeny of Esteban and the Marquise.

Paul Fox, as the only child whose parentage is straightforward and legal, is a perfect counterweight to the Marquise's mercurial children.

All their performances fit perfectly into the framework of the play as dictated by Guy Retallack's direction, which pastes over convincingly the holes in Coward's plot.

Even the rather thankless parts of Hubert the butler (Stephen Chance), Father Clement (Michael Remick), who is forced to perform the marriage ceremony at gun point, and the Marquise's maid, Alice (Jenny Tomasin) do not come over as boring, as they must appear on the written page. Coward domestics have a habit of existing solely for plot purposes and little else.

However excellent all these performances are, and that they are, the play still stands or falls by how convincing the Marquise is.

Having seen Kate O'Mara I cannot imagine anyone else in the part. She justifies the resurrection of the play triumphantly with a performance, which is really beyond praise, and I hope that she will be rewarded with a long West End run if the production gets that far.

Not many actresses nowadays can turn a minor Coward into a major success. This Marquise is no imitation but full lustre forty-carat jewel.

The Marquise, by Noel Coward.
Director, Guy Retallack; Set and Costume Designer, Tim Shortall; Lighting, Ben Ormerod; Sound, Simon Whitehorn; Fight Arranger, Richard Ryan.
WITH: Kate O'Mara, Michael Jayston, Dennis Lill, Zoie Kennedy, Paul Fox, Jenny Tomasin, Ben Warwick, Michael Remick, Stephen Chance.
Producer - Bill Kenright.
Richmond Theatre, The Little Green, Richmond, Surrey.
Mon, April 5 - Sat 10, 2004.
Mon - Sat 7.45 pm Mat: Wed & Sat 2.30pm. Box Office: 020 8940 0088.

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