“I know nothing and just pretend to know a great deal”
I think I might be falling out with Noël Coward, or rather producers’ insistence on frequently remounting the same plays of his, so I had to be persuaded to go and see this production of Relative Values making a short tour to Richmond after a well-received run at Theatre Royal Bath. And it was nice to see a Coward play that I had never seen before, even if it was Trevor Nunn directing – running time is 2 hours 45 minutes and you do begin to feel it – and even if it doesn’t really offer much new either in plot or characterisation.
Where it is strongest is in satirising the class hang-ups of post-war Britain as the stately home of Marshwood House tries to deal with the news of the impending nuptials of the son of the house to a flighty Hollywood actress. Not only that, it turns out the beloved maid has a particular connection to his wife-to-be that makes her position untenable. So in order to keep her companion, the Countess decides to elevate the reluctant Moxie from member of staff to family friend, something made more difficult by her sister’s reinvention of her past and the arrival of an old suitor who wants to stop the wedding.
The TV name-friendly cast also serve better than one might have expected. Patricia Hodge brings genuine depth and warmth to the typical battleaxe role, giving us a real sense of a woman struggling to come to terms with change but determined to do so, Caroline Quentin’s Moxie is a comic delight and stage debutant Rory Bremner also fares as the observant butler, full of bon mots as if it has all been seen before.
For the more theatrically inclined, Katherine Kingsley is a hoot as the would-be Hollywood star and Ben Mansfield as the man pursuing her and Stephen Boxer’s louche nephew Peter are both strong. But the ensemble are good across the board and there’s a tightly honed comic precision that keeps the show pointedly sharp and light on its feet, keeping away – for the most part – from too farcical a mood. It looks superb in Stephen Brimson Lewis’ swish design and one can well imagine it resurfacing soon in the West End.