Theatre and book reviews by Janice Dempsey
A waspish, clever, successful writer challenged by his past. Sounds familiar? But “A Song at Twilight” is not autobiographical, says Noëi Coward, its author. He based Hugo Latymer, his main character, on another writer, Somerset Maugham, and on Max Beerbohm the nineteenth-century theatrical entrepreneur. In old age, Beerbohm had the experience of a former lover returning; Maugham was well-known for his caustic wit and sarcasm. Yet in hindsight, it’s easy to assume that Coward was speaking through his characters about his own troubled relationships.
So, an arrogant, demanding elderly writer suddenly receives a call from Carlotta, a woman with whom he had lived “half a lifetime ago” as he says, who now has a request that he allow her to use letters he sent her at the time in a biography of him that she’s writing. He indignantly refuses, but the ensuing conversations between them reveal that the erstwhile lover has a bargaining chip that he has not foreseen.
This is not the wistfully romantic comedy laced with sardonic humour and Coward’s classic songs that I was expecting. It has its comic moments as Hugo (Simon Callow) blusters his way through the first act and the well-preserved ex-mistress (Jane Asher) coolly parries his verbal thrusts and gibes, but the third act, in which Hilde, Hugo’s long-suffering, nurturing German wife, intervenes, is the strongest part of the play.
The voice of Hilde (superbly played by Jessica Turner) is one of reason and kindness, cutting through the selfishness and “romanticism” of the British characters. It’s a welcome reframing of British cultural stereotypes. This last act rings with honesty. The first half of the play, an over-long, visually static battle of clever insults and threats, didn’t prepare me for this display of wisdom or this depth of understanding.
Coward portrays the contrasting characters and predicaments of the female characters with sympathy, allowing them to express their differing ways of dealing with their relationship with Hugo’s domineering ego. Both are able to stand up to his demands, now that both are no longer young. Coward’s insight into their contrasting attitudes and behaviour is one of the strengths of the play.
In the third act, too, Coward expresses the painful repression of homosexual feelings that has clouded all the social relationships of many men of his generation. Clearly set out in the voice of Hilde is a new acceptance of homosexuality in Britain. Coward must have felt that it was at last safe to be so honest; the Sexual Offences Act was passed in 1967, decriminalising sex acts between men over 21 years old. But this is not the only, or even the main theme of the play, which is the nature of love, tolerance and kindness.
“A Song at Twilight” made its début in 1966, with Nöel Coward in the role of Hugo. I left the theatre last night with a warm feeling towards Nöel Coward’s complex character. This is a rewarding, often funny and immensely entertaining night out.
Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford
Dates: 26 February - 2 March 2019
This review was first published on Essential Surrey Magazine: