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Tribute to a genius

REVIEW: My Dearest Mr Coward (Huntingdon Hall, Worcester, until Sunday, May 8).

NOEL Coward may have advised a certain Mrs Worthington not to put her daughter on the stage, but this grand old man of British theatre certainly didn’t practise what he preached.

Especially when you learn that he first trod the boards at the age of 11, had his first play staged by the time he was 20, and by the next year could be found in America writing away for all he was worth.

Yes indeed. Little wonder that he would become a showbiz legend in his own champagne-soaked lunchtime. Don’t put your daughter on the stage? Definitely a case of sauce for the gander but not for the goose, methinks.

This tribute to the words, wit and songs of Noel Coward was premiering in Worcester, and playing to appreciative audiences from across the city and no doubt beyond.

Presented by a cast of West End performers via the Worcester Repertory Company, and directed by Ian Good, the show proceeds at a breakneck pace which never lets up for a single second.

A familiar face appears in the form of Ian Parkin, founding member of Four Poofs and a Piano, the only highlight in the otherwise insufferably dull Friday Night with Jonathan Ross.

With musical direction by Gary Jerry, the line-up is completed by Janine Pardo, Sarah Day and Harry Revell, all of whom contributed sparkling performances that kept the whole show on track.

Noel Coward came into the world in 1899, which meant that he was perfectly placed to reap the benefits of the Jazz Age which exploded across the western world as a reaction to the recently ended misery and loss of the First World War.

Luminaries such as the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, and a host of other composers, were steadily defining and refining the new music, making it a force to be reckoned with.

But whereas tunes such as Alexander’s Ragtime Band were basically musical hokum that invited audiences to get up and dance, Coward sprinkled his creations with the combination of wit, humour and irony that is so peculiarly British.

Let’s do it, let’s fall in love… we learn that a whole host of fellow earthly species does it. And mad about the boy… is this just another ditty that has rolled off the pen, or is it a secret message to an anonymous someone by the famously bisexual Coward?

Actually, it doesn’t matter. Coward wrote scores of numbers, churning them out by the hour, celebrating the glorious and much maligned art of hack writing like no other has ever done.

And his plays still fill theatres across the globe, testimony to the enduring interest in this most English of writers.

This was a supremely enjoyable night, but I nevertheless have a few quibbles. Gary Jerry is clearly a skilled exponent of the ‘stride’ school of piano playing, and I’d bet good matchsticks that James P Johnson, Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis can be found in his record collection.

But at times, the keyboards seemed to dominate and drown out much of the narrative. There needed to be more light and shade, quieter moments to allow the viewer to ponder and perhaps dwell on each new revelation about Coward’s life, times and work.

Contact mics would have solved this problem and I must admit to being rather surprised that the vocals were delivered acoustically.

However, this was a relentlessly affectionate tribute to a great show business icon of the last century, and one that kept us on our toes while tapping with them at the same time.

Pictured: My Dearest Mr Coward, showing at Huntingdon Hall, Worcester.

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