Bitesize Coward proves to be a tasty lunchtime treat

Still Life – Bridewell Theatre (13:00), until 06 July 2012

The Lunchbox Theatre programme of the Bridewell Theatre is one that taps into the roots of the St Bride Foundation. Established in the 1890’s, the Foundation Institute was created at the crossroads where the Church’s traditional notion of charity met the more enlightened of the Victorian patriarchs. Across London’s East End we see similar projects being set up, and a core function was not just the improvement of physical and material wealth but the improvement of the soul. Lectures on subjects that often took ideas such as the role of the pastoral in Shakespeare or the glories of classical Greece were given frequently to the working poor of London.

You would be hard pressed to argue that the Bridewell Theatre, based at the junction of Fleet Street and Farringdon Street, still caters to the working poor. From the road you can look east and see office blocks that tower over St Paul’s and obscures all of Cheapside. It might, however, still be argued that the workers of London’s financial heartland might benefit from the Victorian ideals of mental nourishment.

If so one hopes that they make use of Lunchbox Theatre to catch Noel Coward’s Still Life. At 45 minutes it acts as an exemplar of the one act structure and hopefully might rehabilitate some attitudes towards Coward. His prodigious output and general position as whipping boy for the angry young men of the 1960’s has perhaps obscured the incredible talent that enabled him to become a colossus of pre-1945 British theatre.

He writes, and is reflective of, a very specific period in Britain’s history – which bisects the Victorian and modern worlds – where the class upheaval put in motion after the disasters of World War 1 had challenged the rights of the upper classes to lead and the church to provide moral guidance. During this period of flux the culture of high society refused to seriously engage with the questions raised of the pre-existing order; Coward is no exception to this and a number of his works probably cannot be revived due to the nature of the elitism and class-caricatures contained in the text.

However Still Life suggests that he was aware of the changing pressures and the way that the upper-classes were trapped within the systems created by their own class (and one cannot but think that own sexuality was no doubt an underlying issue). The abiding impression for the audience is that whilst the play focuses on the relationship between Laura and Alec, it is the relationship of Myrtle and Albert that is allowed to be alive. It is arguable that in this Coward moves perilously close to suggesting the idea of the noble savage free to express their baser instincts, but in many ways the relationship could be closer to Shakespeare’s Phebe and Silvius from As You Like It – providing a comic background and emotional relief from the play’s driving relationship.

Still Life was famously adapted to the screen as Brief Encounter, and Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard were forever immortalised as the epitome of that very British type of love affair: all lingering looks and stiff upper lips. To walk in these shadows requires actors capable of working through what might otherwise appear on the verge of self-parody. Alice Knapton (Laura) and James Powell (Alec) are not always given a lot to work with in the text and there is a risk that performances will come across as one-note and slightly glassy. However they manage to sidestep this trap and bring a multi-layered texture to the roles that hints at all that lies beneath.

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