Magazine article The Spectator

First-Night Nerves

Magazine article The Spectator

First-Night Nerves

Article excerpt

Sheridan Morley keeps a diary while directing a little-known Coward play

1 December 1998

This has been an unusually high-profile year for my friends and colleagues in the Critics Circle. Four of them directed plays at the Battersea Arts Centre in the spring, while in the autumn another four got caught up in a distinctly hostile Channel 4 television series about the role of the reviewer. Having stayed unusually well clear of all that, what am I now doing in a derelict and disused saloon bar down the Goswell Road directing Corin Redgrave, Kika Markham, Nyree Dawn Porter and Matthew Bose in Noel Coward's last play Song at Twilight, due to open at the King's Head in Islington on 4 January?

We need to go back a bit. I once asked Kenneth Tynan why, as the most powerful and brilliant drama critic of my lifetime, he had thrown it all up at the Observer to become Olivier's literary manager at the National, a job which (though Ken begged for it) really only existed in wily Larry's view to keep Tynan well away from a theatre column in which he could prove vastly more dangerous.

`Because,' Ken said simply, 'I got fed up with eating night after night in restaurants where they would never let me write the menu', and that in essence is our theatrical fate; it is also why we are regularly told that a critic is someone who knows the way but can't drive the car, and that nobody ever raised a statue to a reviewer (not true, incidentally; there are at least two in America).

It is therefore not surprising that, somewhere in early or late middle age, most of us critics take to teaching or broadcasting or writing books; we can't all be Bernard Shaw, but it nevertheless is not enough to spend your entire professional life doing nothing but trying to evaluate the work of others. In my case, I began writing about Noel Coward in 1965, and that first biography, his and mine (A Talent to Amuse), led me on to his lifelong partner Gertrude Lawrence and a mini-musical called Noel & Gertie which I have sometimes directed, and which Twiggy is happily now about to open in New York to mark the Coward Centenary over there.

5 December

This, however, is my first attempt to direct a play, and I have been more than lucky in my casting; Corin and Kika are doing their first-ever Coward, and Nyree has been off the London stage for far too long, not unlike her character in the story. The play itself is something of a revelation; if you didn't know the authorship, you might well guess Rattigan or even J.B. Priestley. In essence it's a blackmail thriller, loosely built around Somerset Maugham in old age, and I do not propose to give away any more of the plot than that. Noel himself was getting very fragile when he played it briefly in London in 1966, and since then it has had only very rare road revivals here and in America. The version of Song at Twilight we are now doing is a British premiere, a heavily cut (by Noel himself in 1972, just before his death) variant on the original which runs barely 90 minutes.

10 December

I have begun to realise that Noel left this play ticking behind him as a sort of posthumous time-bomb; essentially it's about the outing of homosexual celebrities at a time when the word 'outing' had yet to be coined, and of course it is to some extent autobiographical, though in the character of the veteran novelist Sir Hugo Latymer are also strong echoes of both Maugham and Max Beerbohm. …

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