Relative Values at the Harold Pinter
Noel Coward’s vibrant and engaging comedy, set in the library of Marshwood House, restored the master playwright to iconic status after he and his work had been dismissed as irredeemably old-fashioned during his comparatively lean post-war period.
Relative Values is a masterpiece telling the timeless tale of forged friendships, family dramas and secret identities intertwined with various uncertainties felt in 1951 as the country’s shifting class system reeled from the rise of Hollywood and the fallout of the Second World War.
Felicity, Countess of Marshwood, is enduring a very trying time: the house is short staffed and news that her son the Earl plans to marry a Hollywood actress is most distressing. However, when Moxie, beloved ladies maid of almost 20 years, announces she’s to leave and confesses the descending starlet is none other than her estranged younger sister, Felicity’s world shatters. Unable to lose Moxie, the Countess is forced to use extraordinary measures to cope with this shocking and potentially embarrassing situation. Assisted by loving nephew Peter and trusted butler Crestwell they devise a solution: dress Moxie up in her ladyship’s cast-offs, announce she’s come into money and pass her off as one of their own. What could possibly go wrong?
Although set in one room (with Pathé news cleverly screened in the background to establish relevant broader information) Coward’s charming social examination never feels laboured or dull. Deftly directed by Trevor Nunn on top form, it’s light, beautiful, riveting and exceptionally well-paced, allowing the uproarious narrative sufficient time to connect and unfold.
A stellar cast meld seamlessly with each other and Noel’s delightfully pithy putdowns, delivering his impeccably high comedy conversations with effortless precision. Mimic extraordinaire Rory Bremner gives an impressively Jeevesian performance as Crestwell, while Jonathan Creek’s Caroline Quentin is simply marvellous as the distraught and dismayed Moxie. Shining brightest, though, is unquestionably Felicity, played with flawless flippancy by a superb Patricia Hodge, who ignites then revels in the many hues her dynamic character provides.
With wit as dry as their martinis and culture clashes between celebrity and aristocracy still prevalent in modern day society, this highly recommendable play still has insight and relevance. The staggering success of ITV’s Downton Abbey and Mr Selfridge are indicative of our enduring fascination with snobbery and the class system, making it the optimum time for this hilarious gem to once again sparkle on a West End stage.
Photos: Alastair Muir
Relative Values is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 21st June 2014, for further information or to book visit here.