Jenny Seagrove is back on the London stage in a production that promises much.
“Volcano” is an intriguing long-lost play by Noel Coward, which he wrote in 1956 and then suppressed because he thought it would alienate the friends it was based upon. There are love triangles galore and a barrage of witty one-liners.
The playwright was living in tax exile in Jamaica and was inspired by an affair between his friend Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels, and a plantation-owning society beauty.
Coward gave the drama an extra twist by setting it in a fictional British colony called Samolo, in danger from spewing lava and ash. As one character dryly says, it’s disconcerting when marital infidelity is mixed up with volcanic eruptions.
Seagrove is the estate owner Adela, who is in love with the charming Guy (played with raffish cool by Jason Durr). It’s no wonder that Coward thought twice about this portrait of Fleming.
Guy, a cross between 007 and Don Juan, lives to seduce any woman he meets. He is usually urbane but “as subtle as a fire engine” when it comes to sex.
Adela’s younger friend Ellen arrives. Guy is soon chatting her up. Then his steely wife Melissa (Dawn Steele) flies in from London: she is well accustomed to his serial romances.
“I know I behave badly,” he admits as they briefly embrace.
So far, so very genteel. The raging passions are hidden by English stiff-upper-lip reserve. The comedy of class and manners is shaken or stirred only slightly, probably less than the endless Martinis and cups of iced tea being drunk.
“Volcano” is like a slightly edgier version of T.S. Eliot’s “The Cocktail Party.”
Coward’s sophisticated sparring comes with plenty of raised eyebrows and understated jokes: “the most beautiful thing about having people come to stay is when they leave.” (The writer’s visitors at his hillside home included Laurence Olivier and Katharine Hepburn.)
The repartee threatens to get dull until the volcano starts rumbling. Designer Simon Scullion does an impressive job with crashing beams and flickering lights. The terrified house guests face tough choices: Run? Stay? And with whom?
The only problem is whether the audience really cares much who pairs with who, or who survives.
Adela is already widowed. Melissa is prepared to tolerate her husband’s affairs as long as they are kept discreet. While Ellen falls in love with Guy, her marriage is already in trouble and her husband has had an affair. It’s not like anyone is being really heartbroken.
Coward's misogynistic portrayal of women as flighty or flirty doesn't look so clever in 2012 -- he has Guy say “women are curious cattle.”
For all this, “Volcano” is beautifully acted and it’s a joy to see it.
One can imagine tax-exile Coward sitting on the terrace of his house tapping it out on typewriter with a chilled gin and tonic nearby and a cigarette holder between his teeth. Then smiling, and putting the work aside, thinking perhaps it’s not quite right and best not to upset whoever is coming for cocktails at 6 p.m.
Who wants to spoil the pleasure of living in paradise?
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“Volcano” is at the Vaudeville Theatre, 404 Strand, WC2R 0NH, through Sept. 29. Information: +44-844-579-1975 or http://www.nimaxtheatres.com/vaudeville-theatre/volcano.
(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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