Ben de Halpert
In a recent biography of Noel Coward, Philip Hoare evokes a man who, whilst irrepressible in private, demanded acceptance in the sobriety of public life.
He was, at once, a maverick and populist, an eccentric and traditionalist, an aesthete and businessman: dazzlingly, flamboyant; unspeakably dull.
This profound ambivalence to class distinction, to the social strata provides much of Relative Values conflict and humour. Theatre company Showdonttell have revived this neglected classic, producing a show packed with reverence and revulsion.
Set in the sitting room of a country manor, the play begins with the news that Nigel, the absent Earl of Marshwood, is engaged to Hollywood starlet, Miranda Frayle.
Smelling New Money, the household is horrified by this ghastly proposal. An indignant maid Moxie, Countess Felicitys personal attendant tenders her resignation.
But Moxie, not known for her capriciousness, soon tells Felicity the truth: Miranda is her estranged sister, and cohabitation would be simply unbearable!
What follows is a hodgepodge of deceit and desperation, as the family tenuously attempt to compensate for Moxies presence without turning her out on the street.
Showdonttell have done a fine job. Karen Graham is perfectly saccharine as Miranda; her counterweight, Moxie played here by Wendy Albiston is at her best when shouting, which is rather often.
Two performances stand out: Simon Money proves a laudable Peter Ingleton, delivered with bags of gin-soaked whimsy; and despite the one or two occasions where she tripped over her accent, Brigid Lohreys Felicity is a razor-sharp wit.
There were further opportunities to stumble, however. The set was a little too cluttered, sending props flying on more than one occasion; projectiles aside, the design fittingly presented a stuffy, moribund upper class the stage dress appropriate, satisfactory, functional.
Speaking of status anxiety and the shock of the new – of a dubious meritocracy facing the ultimate challenge of celebrity – the most pleasing aspect of Relative Values is the utter modernity of it all.
After all, Cowards play is fifty years old, and still attracts the sincerest guffaws. Subtle and peculiar, the type of humour is telling: perhaps the caste system is alive and well; perhaps Maggie was wrong when she tried to claim otherwise.