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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Vaudeville


  Jenny Seagrove, Dawn Steele and Jason Durr/ Ph: Keith Patterson

There is usually an infallible reason why forgotten or unknown works by distinguished writers are, to quote Gray’s "Elegy," “born to blush unseen and waste their fragrance on the desert air.” The reason, nine out of 10 times, is that they were never much good to begin with.
There are exceptions, of course, the most recent being Terence Rattigan’s After the Dance (1939), brilliantly resurrected a couple of years ago by the National Theater and, in the process, given a welcome new lease of life. Even then, its absence from Rattigan’s oeuvre had less to do with its quality than with bad timing. It opened just weeks before World War II began and, despite decent reviews, proved audience unfriendly. It was Rattigan himself who banished the piece to the back of the bottom drawer, refusing even to include it in his collection of published plays.
In the case of Noel Coward’s Volcano, written in 1956, the playwright, who claims to have based several characters in it on recognisable people – most notably James Bond creator Ian Fleming – thought that, in this case, suppression was the better part of valour, and decided to keep it off the boards.
But despite the fact that Coward lived another 17 years, (Fleming predeceased him by eight years) he still made no attempt to mount a production of it. Which is a pity. For although Volcano is hardly a long-lost masterpiece, it throws up enough points of interest to make it stage worthy.
For starters, it touches on homosexuality (or rather, bisexuality), a theme Coward dealt with only once before, in his final play, A Song at Twilight. (Design for Living has an ambiguous menage a trois situation – but nothing is explicit).
Sex is the first (and last) item on his agenda and is more vigorously examined than is usual for him. (Could the fact that the play was written the same year as John Osborne’s groundbreaking Look Back in Anger have had something to do with this?) And, perhaps influenced by Tennessee Williams, Coward, for the first time, uses symbolism to great dramatic effect.
The play is set on the island of Samolo, a fictitious paradise inhabited by several sad, unhappy or frustrated British ex-pats. Carnality eddies miasma-like through their sterile lives, waiting to erupt like the rumbling volcano in their midst.
Unfortunately, Coward goes sofa and no further with the numerous intrigues his slender narrative touches upon, the main one being the edgy relationship between the perennially charming and randy Guy (the character modeled on Fleming); his recently widowed would-be mistress Adela, on whose porch the action takes place; and Melissa, his viper-tongued wife, who is fully aware of her husband’s on-going infidelities –with both men and women.
Jason Durr, Jenny Seagrove and Dawn Steele, respectively, negotiate Coward’s at-times arch, rather self-conscious dialogue with admirable conviction, though I couldn’t help feeling that performers with more star wattage would have helped – especially in the rather static first act.
The eruption of the titular volcano raises the temperature considerably in act two, though some of the secondary characters – such as Flinty Williams’ itinerant Londoner Grizelda Craigie, Robin Sebastian as her hail-fellow-well-met husband, and Perdita Avery as the colourless Ellen Danbury – are too sketchy to command attention. Only Tim Daish as Perdita’s husband, the love of whose life was (and still is) Guy, is of interest.
Still, given that Volcano never benefitted from Coward’s ruthless blue pencil or from his usually infallible expertise, this work-in-progress – which is really what it is – remains a curiosity, well directed by Roy Marsden and atmospherically designed by Simon Scullion. Serious theatergoers in general, and Coward aficionados in particular, will find it fascinating.


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