Happy to catch the first Trio of Tonight at 8.30, having caught 2 and 3 on the opening day(authoritatively reviewed somewhere below). Instead of being a light frothy entrée as I'd imagined, this trio included the heaviest piece of the lot, The Astonished Heart, a shriekingly intense study of tragic obsession (and an early version of the idea of the psychiatrist being the most messed up of the lot, a topos later to yield Cracker, Frasier and Hannibal Lecter). The core ideas came over clearly and the dénoument(s - one onstage, one off, Coward seems to have a thing with double endings) had real power. Before that, We were Dancing, on quickly evaporating affairs in an ennui-soaked world where substantial relationships are impossible; and to round off the Trio, Red Peppers, in which we see the eponymous comic duo grinding through their act at a variety palace, then look behind the curtains at bickering among theatrefolk. Across the three pieces music, shifting rhythms, shafts of wit and through it all a palpable strain of misery. Tonight at 8.30 plays with genres, but the keynote is tragic.
Taking these pieces together, one catches Coward at the tailend of a classical tradition in which tragedy is reserved for the privileged and the working man is a clown; and while he is not Ibsen he does subvert this in interesting ways: the Red Peppers acquire a kind of grandeur in their valiant attempt to 'keep it fresh, keep it fragrant' and the acidic portrait of decadence among the (precariously) privileged makes one think of Ivy Compton-Burnett or Henry Green's Party Going. Again I was struck by correspondences to later writers: We Were Dancing gave a foretaste of Pinter's The Lover, the minute verbal analysis of emotional currents in An Astonished Heart has something in common with, say, Albee's A Delicate Balance; while Red Peppers could be an early sketch for Osborne's The Entertainer (both were astute critics of a world they were nostalgic for). Coming back to the show after a week, I could better appreciate the mixture of period and modern in the performance: imitating Coward's clipped diction and the postures captured in the programme photos would have drenched it in sepia; while observing Coward's rhythms with the contemporary voice certainly brought out the rawness and immediacy of the emotional situations. Staging was clear and unfussy, the acting wondrously versatile. Hugely enjoyed Tonight at 8.30, delighted it started at The Nuffield, and hope it has a really succesful tour. More good stuff to come at The Nuffield - looking forward to Rich Hall tomorrow, Cheek by Jowl (saw them a few days ago in Oxford) on Tuesday and Catch-22 in a couple of weeks.