The past two Wednesdays have seen me bunking off work early - apart from the pure joy of doing so - to race down to the National Theatre to see two one-act plays by Noel Coward in rehearsed readings.
In 1936 Coward wanted to work with friend and PRIVATE LIVES co-star Gertrude Lawrence but was mindful of how bored they were during the long runs of that play in London and New York. So he came up with the idea of writing nine one-act plays (a tenth was quickly dropped after one performance) of which three could be performed nightly under the title TONIGHT AT 8:30 and could be alternated at each performance keeping it fresh for cast - and meaning audiences came back for the other six plays!
The two chosen for the National Theatre were the two of these plays that were later expanded into full-length films THE ASTONISHED HEART and STILL LIFE which was filmed as BRIEF ENCOUNTER. As well as offering star roles to Alex Jennings, coming to the end of his run in Coward's PRESENT LAUGHTER, both plays also show short extra-marital affairs.
THE ASTONISHED HEART was last Wednesday - the first time I had seen it, never having seen the film. The plot is simple: Christian (Jennings) a famous psychiatrist and his wife Barbara (Kate Duchene) are visited by an old school friend of hers Leonora (Nancy Carroll) who has returned to England after living abroad. Despite initial frostiness, three months later Christian and Leonora are having an affair. Barbara finds out and demands that Christian leave. After a few more months the relationship is all but over, Christian tormented by guilt and Leonora sorry she set the affair in motion. After arguing for the last time Leonora leaves and Christian jumps from their hotel window.
Despite sometimes over-wrought dialogue I was hooked by it's unrelenting narrative drive and clever pacing. When Nancy Carroll made her first entrance I thought "She's put the beef on". About halfway through I realised she was in fact pregnant. Of course I then sat and waited for one of the characters to mention it but no. She's not that much of a method actress then.
By far the better however was this Wednesday's STILL LIFE. It was fascinating to see how Coward opened it up for his screen adaptation. Gone was the framing device of starting with the final scene and the story then being told in flashback - oddly enough this *was* used in THE ASTONISHED HEART. Gone too were all the scenes that take place 'outside' as the play takes place only within the confines of the station tea-room. Although no match for the classic film the simple sad love story of Alec Harvey (Jennings) and Laura Jesson (Harriet Walter) again found a lone tear trickling down my cheek. Both finding themselves dwindled into a normal married existence with children, a chance encounter leads to them falling in love possessed by feelings that neither knew they were capable of or that they can fully acknowledge. Victims of time, class and circumstance they snatch brief moments of happiness but it's a relationship ruled by the train timetable as they dare not risk doing anything out-of-the-ordinary. When finally they do something risky it goes wrong and, as Alec realises, signals the beginning of the end of their relationship. The clincher of course is the final scene. Their final meeting, their final chance to find some resolution they can both live with, is interrupted by Laura's garrulous friend Dolly on her way home from a shopping trip who commandeers the table and the conversation. Alec's train arrives and he leaves, a brushing of Laura's hand their only consolation.
Actually the play made me focus on the marvellous construction of the piece - yes the working class characters of Myrtle the tea-room manageress and Albert the chief guard are there for comic relief but their playful relationship counter-balances Alec and Laura's perfectly, an older couple who harbour real affection for each other. You also have the flirtatious relationship between Beryl the tea-room assistant and Stanley who sells snacks on the platform to show a young couple recognising an attraction for each other. Sheila Reid, John Burgess, Rachel Clark and Jonah Russell played this parts very well. And I know you will say "Oh course you'd think that" but this uncluttered production also made plain the subtext that has made BRIEF ENCOUNTER a film so discussed by gay critics.
I'm so glad I saw these two fine performances with actors who could transcended the inherent difficulties of a rehearsed reading to fully involve one in the piece.