In 1926, Hampsteads Everyman Theatre produced Noel Cowards The Rat Trap. Minutely examining the tensions in a literary marriage, it ran for only twelve performances, then was forgotten. Eighty years later, the Finborough Theatres 2006 Forgotten Voices season revives the play for the first time since its opening production.
Sheila, a gifted young novelist, sits with her fiance Keld on the eve of their wedding. He is an aspiring playwright, and together they envisage a life of mutual literary brilliance and perpetual bliss. Only Sheilas friend Olive, watching their effusive displays with a wry smile, suspects they may encounter the odd thorn among the marital roses: Marriage, she says dryly, is nowadays nothing but a temporary refuge.
Olives comment proves startlingly prescient. In the scenes that follow, Coward undertakes an almost forensic examination of how delicate tugging at the threads of a marriage can unravel it entirely. Kelds petulant devotion to his own talent costs his wife dear. She is forced to choose between her writing and her happiness, making a foolish vow never to set pen to paper again if the cost of success is her marriage. Such a decision may now seem a little absurd: I was conscious of an urge to box her ears and instruct her to leave her husband and set up home with Olive, who is both more attractive and infinitely more supportive of her career. But for Coward – writing the play in 1918, within months of women having been formally considered mentally equipped to vote – this was an urgent and contentious issue: that women might choose a kind of fulfilment thats nothing to do with home and hearth.
The plays most compelling moments are the marital rows. Anyone who has ever moved seamlessly from good-natured bickering over the remote control to anguished shrieking about the pursuit of happiness will wince in these scenes, which are directed by Tim Luscombe with such measured skill that when a little mild violence comes, it has a disproportionate power to shock. Almost as shocking is the realisation that the play was written when Coward was 18, an inexperienced but eerily perceptive youth shuttling miserably between war and the stage.
The performances are uniformly competent, though Federay Holmes as the mannish Olive is almost worth the ticket price alone. She has a wonderfully expressive face that conveys a tenderness of heart entirely at odds with her facetious wit. Catherine Hamilton as Sheila had the overly earnest, rather breathy delivery fairly common to actresses playing lovely young women, but the effect of this is to make her eventual transition to anger and cold resolve more moving. Gregory Finnegan as Keld is perhaps more convincing as the petulant wannabe, outraged that someone should interrupt his work with talk of cold mutton, than as the self-possessed success he becomes, but hes certainly wonderfully easy to dislike. The excellent supporting cast leaven the play with witty performances, particularly Olivia Darnley as the designing actress Ruby, and Heather Chasen as the perpetually interrupting domestic Burrage.
The play is staged in the round, with the audience seated on green velvet benches so intimately near the action that it all felt pleasantly intrusive. This offers the rare opportunity to delight in the small details of the production: the table set with port decanters and photographs; the spilling ashtray and crumpled sheets of paper that surround Keld in the grip of genius; and Rubys outfit, so gossamer-stockinged and scarlet-hatted I was very nearly reduced to tears of envy.
That I was one of only fifteen in the audience was a great shame: this is a wonderful opportunity to see a carefully witty performance of an unjustly neglected play, which despite its gloomy prediction that marriage struggles to survive the creative urge carries an inarguable message: that “love should be free, free always – like the National Gallery.”