The Master is in town. Noel Coward’s Me and the Girls, at the Devonshire Park Theatre this week, is a diverting night of music and nostalgia.
Every work, song, story or piece of theatre by Noel Coward is, at least in part, about Noel Coward. The autobiography is never far away. Me and the Girls comes from a short story, respectively adapted and directed by Richard Stirling and Stewart Nicholls. It is threaded through, not only with his wry humour and deliciously clever way with words, but with a rather weary view of a world that fails to appreciate his genius.
Ageing impresario George Banks is no Coward but he shares that ironic outlook and also, as it happens, the Master’s sexual orientation. A role first created for Tom Courtenay is here reprised by James Gaddas, convincingly and with genuine pathos. In his Swiss sanatorium, the dying Banks looks back on life, career and adventures with his Vaudeville troupe – a kind of superior End of the Pier Show on Tour – and on his lost loves. He has taken the Bombshells to Paris, Africa, Singapore and back but now he only lives on memories. There is a tragic persona behind the comic mask.
Switzerland and especially its clinics have a lot to answer for. They always seem to harbour a languid end-of-life inevitability, and this one is no exception. George’s monologues meander back through his life, often ironically humorous but more often quite depressive. Regrets? He’s had a few.
Bridging a wide generation gap, the troupe is youthful, vivacious and sparklingly talented. The six actor-musician girls sing gorgeous scrunchy harmonies, play a marvellous full range of instruments, and move with precision and exuberant energy. They are worth your ticket price alone.
There are classics like Mad About the Boy, there’s a cracking tap number, a pert and impertinent Stick a Pin in my Balloon, Daddy, and a brightly amusing entr’acte End of the News. And the show’s musical highlight Never Again, full of gorgeous nuances and cadences, has the audience mesmerised.
Supporting the front-liners, Tom Vercnocke and Jacob Leeson are an accomplished bass and percussion pair who also pop up in various character parts. And Tom Self, directing from the piano, delivers a devastatingly camp performance as former lover Ronnie.
Fine contributions, too, from Nicola Bryan’s long-suffering confidante Mavis, and from equally talented Lydia Shaw and Lara Lewis.
Three of the talented ensemble make their professional debuts here, all three with style and assurance and style. Step forward, Natalie Quarry, Jessica Brydges and Stephanie Cremona. Very good luck to you, ladies, and bon courage in a tough profession which can both hugely reward you and frustrate you in turn. Your talent shines through. Just hold tight to the words of The Master himself: “Thousands of people have talent. The only thing that counts is: do you have staying power?”
It would be easy, but unfair, to write this one off as a nostalgic period piece, a curiosity. Me and the Girls is a distinctive, enjoyable mix of Coward’s wit and music, with a poignant underlay, and it deserves a wider audience.
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