The two most perfect things, according to Noël Coward, were his wit and Ivor Novello’s profile. Taking that characteristically Cowardian comment as their starting point, Adrian Fisher and Stuart Barham have crafted a rather charming, if ultimately very slight, tribute show that uses the words and music of Coward and Novello to create a dual portrait of two of the most celebrated - yet also sometimes derided - figures in twentieth century British popular culture. First seen in its full version at the Jermyn Street Theatre last summer, Fisher and Barham’s show (simply staged and unfussily directed by Richard Digby Day) now takes up residence for a few weeks at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios before heading to Edinburgh next month. And while the evening lacks the elements of surprise that Alistair MacGowan brought to his Coward tribute show, Sincerely Noël (which was presented at Riverside Studios in 2010), it remains, overall, an entertaining nostalgia-fest that’s sure to please Coward and Novello enthusiasts.
Friends, rivals and occasional collaborators, Coward’s and Novello’s lives and careers overlapped in interesting ways. And The Two Most Perfect Things constructs a lucid narrative that skips briskly through the main incidents in the pair’s creative lives, combining elements of concert, revue and biography as it does so. The show’s elegantly-costumed quartet of performers - Fisher as Coward, Darren Bennett as Novello, and Margaret Preece and Nova Skipp in a range of roles - are accompanied by Musical Director Barham on piano (he’s fleet of fingers though looser on some of his lines) as they sketch out the trajectory of the two men’s lives and careers.
The first act is particularly good, as it compares and contrasts Coward’s and Novello’s backgrounds, establishing them as the sons of ambitious mothers, and detailing their first forays into show business on their way to becoming “the darlings of their age.” The show is at its most artful and effective when it uses the men’s songs as comments on aspects of their experiences: Coward’s “Mad About the Boy,” for example, is sung to Bennett’s Novello by Preece and Skipp in the guise of adoring fans.
But this certainly isn’t a show to go to for deep insights into Coward and Novello as creative artists. Rather, it’s simply a warm and affectionate celebration of the pair’s work which seeks to highlight the timeless craft of their song-writing. For it’s the songs, both well- and lesser-known, that are the stars here, and they’re immaculately delivered by the performers. Everyone gets their moment to shine - Fisher most brightly on a delicious rendition of “A Bar on the Piccolo Marina,” Bennett on a very funny “And Her Mother Came Too” and Skipp on a passionate “Why Does Love Get in the Way?” - while their harmonies on Novello’s patriotic anthems “Keep The Home Fires Burning” and “Rose of England” are irresistible.
But, of the performers, it’s Preece who seems to be having the best time and whose enthusiasm proves most infectious. Capable of turning on a dime from goofiness to elegance, she preens delightfully in her early scenes as Novello’s mother (“the second most famous woman in Wales!”) and gets hilariously squiffy on “What Do You Mean?” but delivers “If Love Were All” and “Someday I’ll Find You” with exquisite tenderness and control.
The Two Most Perfect Things falters a little in its second half and over-eggs the pudding with an extended encore medley that not only spoils the emotion created on a gorgeous group rendition of “Wild, Wild Weather” but that also seems designed simply to shoehorn as many Coward and Novello compositions into the show as possible. (Even so, there are some surprising omissions. No “20th Century Blues”? No “The Land of Might-Have-Been”?) As biography, the show doesn’t go deep, but at its best it does succeed in highlighting the enduring appeal of the men’s work and its ability both to amuse and to speak eloquently on matters of the heart. A few more barbs wouldn’t go amiss, however. Such as Coward’s reported response to the news of Novello’s death: “Despite his plays and his acting, I was very fond of him.”
Runs until 21st July.
Reviewed for The Public Reviews.