Aldermaston Players, February 2012
Review by Hugh Terry.
Elegance, sophistication, a certain dry, droll and occasionally mocking, biting humour – not the kind of thing you might normally associate with Aldermaston Parish Hall. Unless that is, you happen to have been fortunate enough to catch the Aldermaston Players' latest urbane offering, 'Oh, Coward!'.
If you did catch it, chances are you will have been treated to a jolly good repast to boot – a luxury not afforded this critic, for reasons of space! But it was a good sign that I was advised punters should leave plenty of room for the cheese board...
Anyone unfamiliar with the writings of Noel Coward may regard his humour as an acquired taste – but it is one which, once acquired, never loses its magic. Dated? Certainly – if only because Coward's output reflected his time and place, as it would most creative types. But also timeless – because like all great art, Coward's insights, his delightful wordplay and witty aphorisms (like those of Oscar Wilde) transcend the fashions of the age.
So all credit to the group for having the courage (no cowards here!) to mount such an ambitious production off the beaten track in mid-February: not quite the height of the West End season, you might say. The show consists of a virtual non-stop medley of Coward's best known songs and skits, with the company (six chaps and four fillies) seamlessly switching roles in the twinkling of an eye.
In an evening of successive star turns, it would be unfair to single anyone out really, because this was not only an ensemble piece, with some singers admittedly stronger than others – and clarity of diction more important in any case than vocal power – but also an entertainment in which teamwork is everything.
There was plenty of experience on show, with many of the cast drawn from the legendary Sainsbury Singers: Nigel and Kim Antell, Tricia and Chris Goodchild, Andrew Dutton, Chris Faulkner, Nigel Wilson, Hils Latimer and Kerry Woodley; also Graham Jerome (now approaching veteran status?) of whom more in a moment.
You would not need to be an expert on Noel Coward (I freely admit I am not) to enjoy a right royal evening at this show – devised by Roderick Cook and first produced in 1972, a year before Coward went to join those 'feathered angels'. Needless to say, it displays all Coward's trademarks: a romantic sensibility, cosmopolitanism, world-weariness, acuity of social observation, ingenious wordplay, impossible rhymes and yes, a certain well-placed snobbery.
His output was quite prodigious. Among the 'greatest hits' featured here, you'd probably recognize 'Dance Little Lady', 'The Stately Homes of England', 'Why Do The Wrong People Travel?', 'Mrs Worthington', 'Mad Dogs and Englishmen', 'Mad About The Boy' and 'Some Day I'll Find You' – all carried off by this enthusiastic group with gusto and aplomb.
During the half-time hiatus, as we sucked on lemon sherbets, I mused to Chris Boott (in his producer hat) that it must be tricky performing on the uneven stage, with the right front corner a step lower than the rest. He explained that this was deliberate, to add a variety of perspective (and presumably give the actors an extra challenge). It clearly paid off when the aforementioned Mr Jerome staggered on for a hilariously sodden rendition of 'A Marvellous Party' in which he kept tripping over – almost.
It was in the second half that the performers really hit their stride, thanks in no small measure to the sympathetic lighting, understated staging and the kind of smooth, elegant costumes you naturally associate with this sort of material (pun intended). Hats off to Chris Chapman and the Bootts: director Chris and wardrobe mistress Ange. Keeping things simple and not overly flashy worked just perfectly.
Finally, there was exactly the right balance between words and music: the piano remained a mellifluous background accompaniment which never drowned out the lyrics, which would have been a disaster. In all, had Noel himself been gazing down on this humble parish hall from his no doubt handsomely appointed cloud, he will, I think, have been pleasantly proud.