One act or another

Noel Coward's Tonight at 8.30

Malvern Festival Theatres


This week’s ‘cocktail’ of Noel Coward one-act plays provides a unique and unusual theatrical experience, performed by the English Touring Theatre in conjunction with the Nuffield Theatre.

The opportunity to see nine one-act plays in one week, three at each performance, provides a fascinating variety and taste of Coward’s extraordinary versatility. Last night (Wednesday night) we were presented with a triplet entitled DINNER: ‘Ways and Mean’, ‘Fumed Oak’ and ‘Still Life’.

The three plays are very contrasted: we move from the French Riviera where a couple of frivolous members of the spoilt upper middle class are struggling for cash on their travels, to the very ordinary working class home of a family in south London, on to a refreshment room in a railway station where a couple of separately married individuals meet and fall in love.

The contrasting social contexts, characters and accents are presented in a set that is skilfully adapted by the designer to provide an excellent and varied backdrop for each of the three pieces. This is sensitively complemented by the lighting and sound effects.

Ways and Means is light and humorous: a couple who have wasted their money in gambling and frivolous expenditure are arguing and worrying about how they can continue their continental tour without the necessary funds while needing to maintain face in front of their ‘friends’  and around the villa.

Their verbal sparring is quite intense at times though we are increasingly aware that they care for each other and are actually close. At night a burglar breaks into their apartment and turns out to be a chauffeur of their acquaintance and they persuade him to help them by stealing from another resident, and then sharing the proceeds before tying them up and making them appear to be victims of a violent break-in.


The gently farcical nature of the plot and the wittiness of the dialogue make it a very amusing, clever, superficial but entertaining piece.

Fumed Oak  presents us with a domestic family group: mother and father, grandmother and daughter. In the first half the father/husband says almost nothing but in the second half, having had a bit to drink, in an unprecedented outburst he erupts and releases all his anger and frustrations against the three generations of women with whom he has shared his life, exploding in an irrepressible flow of angry and sarcastic vitriol before leaving them for a new life somewhere else. In this marriage there is huge gulf between the couple.

The shocking nature of his language in insulting the women provides a good deal of humour, especially as the three women are caricatured as extremely irritating and deserving of much that he hurls at them.

Still Life was later developed into the film Brief Encounter and presents us with a man and a woman who meet ‘by accident’ in a railway station and go on to develop a strong passion for each other. However they both wrestle with the guilt and shame of knowing that it is a betrayal of their married spouses and families, and eventually their consciences and guilt win through and they experience the anguish of the final parting.

This is a much more profound and serious psychological exploration of a couple’s feelings than we see in the other two plays. This intense and passionate relationship is conducted in a context where, in marked contrast, the manageress of the tea bar and the other minor characters present us with more superficially explored relationships that are amusing and lightly comic.

The pace and energy of the cast is very well-maintained throughout the three plays; the characterisations are colourful and entertaining, and among them Kirsty Besterman and Giuri Sarossy stand out as excellent performers – the latter took the lead in two of the plays on this particular evening. The accents of the tearoom manager and the father in ‘Fumed Oak’ are not quite consistently maintained, but lines are delivered clearly throughout and Noel Coward’s wit is very successfully conveyed. Blanche McIntyre’s direction is assured and achieves distinct pace and tones in each of the plays. The humour in the plays comes from the witty dialogue, the interplay between the colourful characters, the use of dramatic irony and the amusing twists in the plots of the first two plays in particular.

The audience numbers were disappointing and I was left wondering Perhaps there is a limited appeal in the short one-act plays for the general public who enjoy one coherent story running through the whole evening. It is a shame as the brilliant wit of Coward and the tremendous skills and energy of the cast deserve more!

Tim Crowe 


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