This afternoon, after completing my Tacita Dean exhibition triptych at the National Gallery (Still Life) and the National Portrait Gallery (Portrait)--the RA's Landscape show having been taken in on Friday--I made my way to the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre to see a matinee of Noel Coward one-acts. It's part of repertory run of nine of the playwright's shorter pieces that the company is dubbing Tonight at 8:30, grouping the shows into three thematic clusters: "Bedroom Farces," "Secret Hearts," and "Nuclear Families." All nine plays are performed by the same repertory of nine actors. You can book for an individual cluster or, if you're especially keen, cram all three clusters in on weekends, when the company does all nine plays in succession, beginning at 11:30 am and ending almost twelve hours later (with lunch and dinner breaks in between).
I only had time for one of the clusters, so I opted for "Bedroom Farces," which includes the following deliciously subversive one-acts: We Were Dancing, about a woman determined to leave her husband for the man she instantly falls in love with on the dance floor, only to have second thoughts when he turns out to have been previously married; Ways and Means, concerning an unhappily married pair of indebted freeloaders who suddenly face eviction from their latest borrowed guest room, only to solve their problems by taking advantage of an improbable twist of fate; and Shadow Play, about a woman who, facing the prospect of divorce, enters into a drug-induced dream-state in which she relives the early days of her courtship with her husband.
As with most of Coward's work, the dialogue is fast and light, the skewering of bourgeois heteronormative conventions merciless, and the obsession with the lifestyle of the monied upper classes absolute. Plus there's singing and dancing, which was mostly put over very well by the hard working company members, especially given the cramped footprint of the Jermyn Street stage. I was in the first row, sitting right next to the piano, and the actors were at times less than a foot away from me.
But most memorable was my conversation with the woman sitting next to me, a theatre-mad octogenarian who was returning for the evening performance, and who the day before had also seen two plays back-to-back. Then again, so had I, and when I mentioned how much I'd enjoyed The Inheritance, she smiled and nodded knowingly. She also goes to the Edinburgh Fringe for a week every year and sees most of the good stuff before it even heads to London--if it ever does at all. I helped her reset her password for her Groupon account, as she was heading across the road for a discounted dinner between shows and had somehow been locked out of accessing her voucher. She did nod off at times during each of the performances, but I only hope I have a fraction of her energy and curiosity in thirty years--okay, and maybe also a fraction of what I judged from her clothing and jewelry to be her considerable wealth.