It is fitting that a Fuller’s pub should present a stage show about the lyrical genius who wrote “London Pride”. BELLA BARTOCK made her way up the stairs at the Spread Eagle to see it performed
It is cabaret, and you are welcome but there is no Wilkommen and barely a bienvenue at Peter Gill’s performance of his solo show The Wit and Songs of Noel Coward, staged at the Spread Eagle Theatre last night.
Coward’s xenophobia, set out both in Gill’s informative patter and the words of some of the songs themselves, grates a little on modern ears. Coward said the Germans were “aggressive, cruel and humourless… a horrid neurotic race”, and describes them as rats in “Don’t Let’s Be Beastly to the Germans”, though this was written in the early months of World War II, when attitudes were, understandably polarised.
So we could extend some licence to a man who featured in the Nazis’ little black book of names of those Britons who would be rounded up and summarily executed after a successful invasion.
Coward was one of the giants of mid-20th century British stage and screen, but he is a figure largely forgotten today, even if one of the West End theatres which commonly performed his plays, such as Blithe Spirit, now carries his name. Coward also worked as a screenwriter and film director, in those dark days when the cinema was regarded by the Establishment as a medium for propaganda, yet he managed to deliver a subtle and nuanced work such as In Which We Serve.
Starting his stage career in the Edwardian era and into the 1920s, when there was a premium on displays of Wildean wit, Coward was also popular in America, where Time magazine described him as having “a combination of cheek and chic, pose and poise”, which infects the songs he wrote during the era of Music Hall and reviews.
Gill opens his show with the sly, camp humour of “Mrs Worthington” but this gives way to an abrupt change of tone with “London Pride”. The story goes that, as he surveyed the bomb damage in London during the Blitz, Coward saw the flower London Pride growing out of the rubble. The song is quite affecting (and the emotion well delivered by Gill).
After “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” and “Could You Please Oblige Us With A Bren Gun”, Gill had exhausted most of Coward’s best-known songs by the end of the first half. The second half was, if anything, more entertaining, Gill talking through the ups and downs of Coward’s life, giving context to some of the lesser known songs.
A highlight was an outrageous re-working of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It”, in which Coward managed to lampoon, among others, Hemingway, the Gabor sisters and Joseph McCarthy.
Now I know that our loyal reader will remember my having written this before, but the Spread Eagle itself really does deserve a mention. Once there, you do feel that you are in a rather bijou theatre.
It is a venue that lends itself to cabaret-style performances, hidden away as it is in the labyrinthine upstairs of the town centre pub. It presents a different world to the noisy bouncer-heavy youth-orientated, blood-and-vomit strip outside.
There is also comedy on Thursday November 23 with Gavin Osborne (£8), and free cinema shows every Monday until Christmas.
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