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Master of all trades – Noel Coward

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His achievements have been rarely matched by any other creative artist, so it is only natural that Noel Coward should lend his name to a West End theatre. Anthony Field looks at the great man’s connections with the soon to be renamed Albery

Noel Coward only appeared twice at the New Theatre, later the Albery and now to be renamed the Noel Coward. The first time was in July 1920 when he played Bobbie in his own play I’ll Leave It to You. Then in September 1926 he appeared as Lewis Dodd in The Constant Nymph.

Coward wrote in his autobiography Present Indicative that I’ll Leave It to You was “amusing and unpretentious, the construction was not bad but it was too mild and unassuming”. It had played for three weeks in Manchester and was cheered on its first night. Coward added: “I made quite a nice little speech. It was boyish and modest, and had been carefully rehearsed alone in my digs beforehand.”

Three months later it opened at the New to another ovation. He later recalled that “Ivor did not come round to see me afterwards, which hurt me bitterly. When I eventually tackled him about this, Ivor replied that the play had irritated him excessively and had bored him stiff”.

The critics were enthusiastic about a new playwright having been discovered but the notices were not good enough to lure audiences to the New and the run ended miserably – made even gloomier because Mary Moore (Lady Wyndham) who had produced the play decided to economise in the last week by cutting the lighting down by half. It is interesting to note that later while the critics had almost unanimously praised I’ll Leave It to You, it had failed at the box-office whereas London Calling which only received scant appreciation from the critics was a big success.

Coward was persuaded to play Lewis Dodd for the first month of The Constant Nymph which meant postponing the New York production of his play This Was a Man. He was not at all keen to play in Margaret Kennedy and Basil Dean’s play adaptation from her novel as it was a heavy part and he was feeling exceedingly tired. However, Basil Dean and Edna Best, who was to be his co-star, persuaded him to start rehearsals. He recalled: “As an actor it was excellent experience for me, and Basil adamantly refused to allow me to use any of myself in it at all. I wasn’t even permitted to smoke cigarettes but had, with bitter distaste, to manoeuvre a pipe. I had grown my hair long and put no grease on it for a month, consequently it was dry and fluffy and sparks from the pipe frequently blew up and set fire to it”. He also had to wear ill-fitting suits and spectacles and admitted never having been so thoroughly uncomfortable onstage in his life. He hated Lewis Dodd whole-heartedly as he seemed in the play (and not in the novel) to be a clumsy, insensitive oaf in spite of being a musical genius. He was told, even by uncompromising critics, that he gave a fine and convincing performance but remained firmly of the belief that he was awful.

Coward considered that Edna Best gave a tender and exquisite portrayal of Tessa and the whole production was magnificent. The play was an enormous success but after three weeks Coward found the strain so enormous that he went through a whole performance weeping, to the bewilderment of the audience and the cast. After the show he collapsed in his dressing room until the doctor gave him a strychnine injection and confined him to bed. His withdrawal from The Constant Nymph made no difference to business.

John Gielgud took over the role of Lewis Dodd from Coward and played it successfully for a year, pipe and all. In fact, in his memoir Early Stages, Gielgud records that he had already been sent the script at the initial casting stage. He was thrilled as Dodd’s part was a tremendously long and difficult one. Kennedy was very supportive of Gielgud in opposition to Dean’s choice of Ivor Novello. But a few weeks later Gielgud was dining at the Ivy when Coward beckoned him over to his table and said very gently and kindly: “I think I ought to tell you before Dean does that I am going to play Lewis Dodd for the first month of the run of The Constant Nymph.”

Although these were his only two appearances at the New Theatre, Coward played in nearly every other major theatre in London and his range of work, apart from acting, was rarely achieved by any other creative artist. Many of his plays from Hay Fever to Design for Living and from Private Lives to Blithe Spirit and Present Laughter have become classics. His musicals from Bitter Sweet to Conversation Piece and Operette, his revues from Words and Music to Sigh No More and his memorable Cavalcade as well as the ballet London Morning revealed him to be a master of all trades.

Even venturing into film, his works were lasting achievements and included In Which We Serve, This Happy Breed and Brief Encounter. In 1961 he composed Sail Away which he directed at the Savoy, starring Elaine Stritch, in 1963 The Girl Who Came to Supper, based on Terence Rattigan’s The Sleeping Prince, in New York and wrote a new play Suite in Three Keys in 1966.

Novello was six years older than Coward but the two were to have a life-long friendly rivalry. They both had a total devotion to the theatre but were absolutely unlike. Coward was sharp, clear-headed and incisive like a piece of steel, a master of brevity, going straight to the point. Ivor was always an uncurable romantic.

Born in 1899 Coward was revelling in film roles such as Our Man in Havana in 1960, Bunny Lake Is Missing in 1965 and The Italian Job in 1968. He was knighted in 1970 and died in March 1973.

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