“I’ve got to convince you of my complete innocence and I don’t know how”
It’s a mystery really, how a playwright as renowned as Noël Coward can have a play that few have heard of and even fewer have actually seen. But it’s a genuine marvel that that play turns out to be a sparkling diamond, the Finborough once again coming up with the goods in exploring deep into the dustier realm of the literary canon. Home Chat has not been seen in the UK for nearly 90 years but on the evidence of Martin Parr’s revelatory production here, you wouldn’t be surprised to see it take it place alongside the more familiar of Coward’s works that frequently pepper the repertoire.
Not least because it contains a corker of a female lead in the figure of Janet Ebony, a garrulous gutsy character who tosses contemporary notions of morality under the microscope and finds British society to be severely lacking. Home Chat begins with a train crash, wittily mounted here in miniature, but it’s not the disaster that is the focus, rather the scandalous implications for its survivors. For it is revealed that Janet and her best friend Peter Chelsworth, who both escaped unscathed, were sharing a sleeping car and their family and friends back in Chelsea are simply outraged.
Parr has much fun in playing out the fustiness of these old sorts – Janet’s husband, mother and mother-in-law, plus Paul’s fiancée Lavinia, all jump quickly to the conclusion of adultery – which appals the (innocent) Janet when she finally returns home, so much so that she’s driven to extreme action. Zoe Waites is just superb as the woman coming to realise that her only choice is to seize her own destiny and hang the consequences, even if the emotional cost is high. She has great chemistry too with Richard Dempsey’s comparatively underwritten Peter, her partner in crime in sticking two fingers up to society.
As the redoubtable matriarchs, Polly Adams and Joanna David both give a masterclass in scathing comments and cutting glances, the rapier edge of Coward’s wit glittering well. But it’s the air of melancholy that Parr emphasises that elevates the production, Robert Hazle’s tuneful butler covering the scene changes with gorgeously languorous renditions of some of Coward’s classic songs, and real sadness accompanying all the sharp humour throughout. Rebecca Brower’s design also plays a fascinating role in how the drama unfolds, making Home Chat an unexpectedly splendid surprise. (And I haven’t even mentioned the devastatingly handsome man in military moustache and uniform!)