BWW Reviews: NOEL AND GERTIE, The Cockpit Theatre, September 30 2011

Sir Noel Coward, "The Master", exists for all but those approaching drawing their pensions more as an idea than as an actual person, more likely to have been seen in atypical roles such as he played in The Italian Job and (as a spectacularly camp captain of a warship) in the brilliantly successful propaganda film, In Which We Serve. Just as it did when first performed 28 years ago, Sheridan Morley's Noel and Gertie, brings Coward's sophisticated wit, gentle melodies and acid dialogue to a new generation through its combination of songs and extracts from his theatrical and film work, his diaries and letters. Weaving in and out of the show, as she weaved in and out of Coward's life, is Gertrude Lawrence: more than a muse, less than a lover, a constant presence in Coward's mind, if surprisingly often absent from his peripatetic life and eclectic artistic output, starring together only in Private Lives (1930) and Tonight At 8.30 (1936).

As Noel, Ben Stock, sings his songs with Coward's delicate delivery, often accompanying himself at the piano. He is most comfortable in the extracts from the plays, in which the dazzling wordplay and bittersweet portrayals of love not quite working out as it should, suit his angular, rather tense, presence on stage. If the role of Noel and his male characters is challenging, that of Gertie, the (what we would call today) troubled star of stage and screen, is even more of an ask, but Helena Blackman rises to it wonderfully, singing and acting with a charisma that shows why Gertie rose to such prominence and why she fascinated a gay man for more than forty years. In the poignant, delicate, closing number "I'll see you again", Coward's love letter to Gertie after her death at just 54, the relationship is summed up in a way that showcases Coward's command of music and words and Gertie's command of his love.

Performed in the round at the functional Cockpit Theatre nestled in the just about functional council estates of Lisson Grove North London, Noel and Gertie transports its audience to an age as distant as that of the Roman Empire, with its 1930s telegrams, cigarette holders and its less than politically correct songs about foreigners, but, through two fine performances, the production shows again the timelessness of melody, language and wit.

Noel and Gertie continues at The Cockpit Theatre until 22 October. 

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From This Author Gary Naylor

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