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Tonight at 8:30 review at Jermyn Street Theatre, London – ‘a charismatic ensemble’

Ian Hallard and Sara Crowe in We Were Dancing at Jermyn Street Theatre, London

Though the nine one-act plays that make up Tonight at 8.30 are all written by Noel Coward, in many ways that’s where the similarities end. Director Tom Littler has rearranged them into new groups of three, dropping one, Fumed Oak, and replacing it with Coward’s 10 one-act work, Star Chamber. 

The resulting trilogies, designed to be seen separately or in several marathon performances on the weekends, are Bedroom Farces (We Were Dancing, Ways and Means, Shadow Play), Secret Hearts (Star Chamber, Red Peppers, Still Life), and Nuclear Families (Family Album, Hands Across The Sea, The Astonished Heart).

The group names are a new addition by Littler and although they suggest thematic consistency, what the season demonstrates clearest is the breadth and variety of Coward’s writing.

They stretch from the broad comedy of Ways and Means, the story of the vain and silly Cartwrights keeping up appearances on the Cote d’Azur despite their dwindling funds, all the way through to the sorrowful Still Life, the first incarnation of Brief Encounter. 

Coward intended the cycle of plays to be a vehicle for the talents of himself and Gertrude Lawrence. Here, they’re performed by a cracking ensemble that makes even the less entertaining plays enjoyable to watch.

Sara Crowe consistently stands out playing a collection of women who seem quavering and daffy at first, but are then revealed to almost always get the last laugh. Such is the case with We Were Dancing, where she appears in partnership with Ian Hallard as a couple who have known each other for all of one dance, yet have now decided they’re wildly in love – and to hell with convention.

In turn, Hallard is particularly good in the musical moments, looking impressively at ease whilst also ramping up the comedic pizzazz. Rosemary Ashe and Miranda Foster, meanwhile, shape-shift through a catalogue of recognisably repressed English females.

Tonight at 8:30 is an ambitious undertaking for the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre. Emily Stuart’s costumes (totalling 89 in all) are spot on in visualising certain character tropes and the subtle differences between the middle- and upper classes.

Louie Whitemore’s set designs are similarly nuanced, and the production draws humour from having the stage management team being seen transforming them. Nuclear Families, for example, features the metamorphosis of a Victorian drawing room into a swanky flat in ‘30s London.

Some of the plays fare better than others – surprisingly, Still Life is one that flounders slightly, as does The Astonished Heart – but overall Coward’s work still stands up because of his talent for exactly pinpointing the rampant hypocrisies, pretensions and almost-lovable quirks of the British, whether performing on stage or performing at home.

Brief Encounter review at Empire Cinema, London – ‘unashamedly romantic’

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A charismatic ensemble buzz with energy throughout nine one-act plays by Noel Coward