Writer: Noël Coward
Director: Barry Nielson
Venue: Genesian Theatre
November 6 to December 12, 2021
The venerable Genesian Theatre returns to the stage after lockdown presenting the Australian premiere of Noël Coward’s Home Chat. Written in 1927, its themes of female empowerment and relaxed attitudes toward marital fidelity were not well received by conservative audiences of the time. Now, however, Home Chat can be appreciated as a brave attempt by Coward to domesticate then unpalatable subjects by presenting them with his trademark wit and breeziness.
The female in question is a married woman, the high-spirited Janet Ebony (Abbie Love) who generously offers her long-time best friend Peter Chelsworth (a debonair Cameron Hutt) a bed in her sleeping compartment after he has given up his place on a Paris train to an elderly woman. Her decision already points to an independence of mind and when their shared but innocent night together is made public owing to a disastrous train crash, Janet is outraged by the judgemental response of her family and friends. As a consequence, she connives with Peter – more a follower than an initiator – to pretend that they are having an adulterous affair as a “punishment”.
The flamboyant Janet is a difficult character to appreciate but is fully understood by Love. Janet is bored with her pompous husband Paul (a suitably uptight Kendall Drury) whose “forgiveness” could only be a further humiliation, at odds with a disapproving mother-in-law Mrs Ebony (Lois Marsh) and supercilious towards both her witty mother, Mrs Chillham (Jenny Jacobs), and her best female friend, the always-hovering Mavis Wittersham (Ruba El-Kaddoumi). She overrides or brushes aside their feelings, and while there is some justification in her attitude to Mavis who is lovesick for Paul, she is not sensitive to the hurt experienced by Lavinia (an appealing Scarlet Hunter), Peter’s fiancée.
Janet’s handling of the original revelation is inept. She lets Paul hear of her unconventional behaviour through the gossip chain rather than tell him directly and, when confronting her family, she is airily dismissive of their concerns. While she would have been aware that the invitation to Peter challenged the social standard of her class she also believed it would go unnoticed. Caught out, she responds with the best strategy she can and one in keeping with her spirited character – she fights but without a real objective. Some sharp questioning by Peter’s friend, Alex Stone (an urbane Peter David Allison), prompts her to a momentary reassessment. The outcome for her and the audience is surprising and Love gives her final exit the ambiguity it should have.
Much of the Coward wittiness lies in oppositional relationship. The two mothers (such lovely performances) spar amusingly but often insightfully, and their mutual hostility towards the mooning Mavis – who nevertheless gets her heart’s desire – gives rise to some barbed observations. The facile group’s change in attitude from disapproval to purring approval as Janet dispels their fear of an incipient scandal is both a comical highpoint and a condemnation of the superficiality of their mores. A further dimension is added by Robert Turner who, doubling as butler to both households, delivers several of Noël Coward’s clever songs with aplomb – and topical references – while moving stage furniture.
Home Chat has more to interest theatregoers than just a revival of a rarely performed play and great costumes (Susan Carveth). Under the firm direction of Nielson, the performance maintains the breeziness characteristic of much of Coward’s work while also admitting a more serious intention. A thoroughly enjoyable evening’s entertainment in an historic location and a lively introduction to what promises to be an exciting program in 2022.
At present, please note you must be fully vaccinated to attend this performance.