Noel & Gertie
Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne.
Mtp’s new production of Noel & Gertie, based on the playwright’s 54 year friendship with Gertrude Lawrence is a perfectly charming night out. The love story, devised by Sheridan Morley from the couple’s letters and diaries, is told with all the Master’s flair and wit. Featuring song and scenes from Privates Lives and Blithe Spirit, this beautifully set and smartly executed production from Matthew Townshend takes us on a perfectly orchestrated trip down memory lane.
This is a charming duet (trio including pianist Jonathan Lee who was an accomplished accompanist and kept the music light, frothy and refined with just the right amount of Cowardesque fancies for the duration of the performance).
The set is a split dressing room, his and hers with the stage in-between, it’s a simple design and allows the actors to do effective personal narrative across imagined distance and separation, then coming together for the moments and performances that they shared. It worked well and with the well-crafted stage movements and choreography it never seemed too busy or cramped.
The narrative is firmly set in memory and reminiscing, with Noel being the man of fact, Gertie having more of the emotional content and we watch their friendship and careers develop from their earliest day on the stage, as pre-teens in Liverpool to their last great performances in American and England. There’s plenty of the waspish wit they were famous for but also a lot of truly warm loving details which utterly convinces of the depth of feeling that is shared between these two difficult, talented people who chose to – in their different ways – keep a lifelong friendship going and gently holding the flame after one of them dies so tragically.
It’s tightly directed and both set and lighting allow the changes from home, to dressing room to theatre stage to be effectively managed and the pleasantly humming along pace of music, funnies, songs and experts from Coward’s plays and Lawrence’s performances, most of them together, works very well to both show us the narrative arc of their mutual and join careers but also the ups and downs of their personal lives and dedicated friendship.
You can see full cast and crew info here on the company website:
We end at the sudden death of Gertie, it’s a beautifully handled piece of theatre, one moment it’s all glitter, dance and music; race horses, winners and silly society froth and the next Noel reels and reflecting and putting on his jacket, tears well up, we feel his loss, he does what must be done, but seems lost. It was a very convincing performance from Ben Stock and although I never felt he quite nailed THAT voice, he certainly convinced with his mannerisms, delicate offhand well-timed bon mots and the charming, gentle dedication and admiration that Coward felt for Lawrence. Helen Power’s Gertie is just the right combination of diaphanous full beam talent with a core of sharp diamond hardened steel, she reflects the brilliance of Cowards wit while concentrating her own talent mercilessly. Her voice is flawless, taking us back to a time of pure vocal control and supreme masterly of lyrics, she was a delight. My companion enjoyed herself immensely and giggled throughout this thoroughly delightfully and perfectly balanced performance.
It’s a lovely jaunt out to the Devonshire Park in Eastbourne; with free parking right outside, a very comfortable fully refurbished Victorian flourish of a theatre and very reasonable bar and ticket prices, it’s a lovely night out.
Runs until April 1
For more info or to book tickets see the Devonshire Park Theatre Website here