It’s difficult to know what to expect from a run of nine one act plays, from the pen of one of England’s most successful 20th century playwrights, actors and bon-vivants, played in trios over three successive nights.
Noël Coward’s Tonight at 8.30, a collection of interwar vignettes, is in a way similar to Forrest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna get, but all have a different centre, even if it is overlaid with the writer’s trademark wit.
English Touring Theatre have arranged their production into three separate courses of three plays – cocktails, dinner, and dancing – and they opened their run at Hall For Cornwall with dinner, following an aristocratic farce with suburban kitchen sink melodrama and the sentimental gem that would eventually evolve into David Lean’s film Brief Encounter.
The first play, Ways and Means, was a sparkling gem of classic Coward, a couple on their uppers amidst the gambling and the glamour of the Riviera, viewed with flippancy rather than pathos through the prism of their bedroom as various guests and servants pass in and out.
However the second act, Fumed Oak, will have been a shock for anyone expecting nothing but clipped accents and cocktails, as the scene moved from the Cote D’Azur to Clapham and the glitz turned to grey. The one false note of the evening seemed to lie here, where the more gristly story line felt a little overacted at times, although the actors managed breakout moments of comedy very well.
The final instalment of the evening, Still Life, took the audience to a train station café, where a very English love affair in microcosm was played out in four or five encounters, against the backdrop of carryings on among the station staff.
Coward intended the plays to provide an opportunity for showcasing a wide range of acting talents, and the versatile actors of the company shift well from role to role, with Kirsty Besterman and Gyuri Sarossy giving a dazzling performance as the couple in the first act, each reflecting the others more scintillating moments. She moved from catty to kitten-like in the blink of an eye, as he in turn changed from proud husband to overgrown manchild, comparing his wife unfavourably to his childhood rocking horse.
Tonight at 8.30 is an almost-forgotten treasure of 30s theatre, and the company has risen to the challenge of nine different plays with aplomb. Each of these three plays, in its own way, shows people facing adversity, and although they may not always beat it, they give it their best shot, and take as much happiness as they can along the way.
If these three are anything to go by, the other six plays should also bring plenty of happiness to their characters, and to their audiences too.