A Noel Coward revival in sedate old Eastbourne, at the cosy Devonshire Park: a little too comfortable and undemanding? Don’t be deceived: A Song at Twilight is classic theatre, impeccably delivered by the finest actors in the business.
Two truly great names, Simon Callow and Jane Asher, lead a touring production which shimmers with class. The curtain rises on a set that glows with elegance, a Lausanne hotel room looking across the lake, and all is serene. Distinguished author Sir Hugo lives out a quiet retirement with his wife of twenty years, and former secretary, Hilde. Coward was never above being just a little beastly to the Germans, but Hilde, beautifully and most knowingly played by Jessica Turner, is an engaging foil to Sir Hugo.
Both witty and assertive, Hilde is really rather good for her opinionated and caustic husband. Loveless but not without affection, they are living out a life like an album of faded photographs. But this placid existence is about to be shaken, and indeed shattered, for Hilde announces a visitor.
Carlotta is a voice from Sir Hugo’s past, with whom he had a two-year love affair some two decades earlier; and she is less than welcome. Within moments of her appearance, Jane Asher has established the character, and the contrast with Hilde: the cascade of red hair, the flaring skirt and plunging neckline, and the smart coquettish manner.
Ostensibly, Carlotta has come to talk about biographies, and perhaps to seek an apology for Sir Hugo’s less than complimentary references to her in print. But she has another agenda, more devious and potentially much more damaging.
She has in her possession, and is minded to publish, some very private letters from a previous male liaison of Hugo’s. It is within her power to shatter his public persona, and at the same time, ironically, to release an inwardly tortured soul.
To all intents, this is now a two-hander, and under Stephen Unwin’s light-touch direction the two of them skilfully ease from cautious chess players to sparking duellists. Simon Callow is simply the definitive Sir Hugo, in language, body language, gesture. He is word-perfect, pitch-perfect, even pause-perfect. There is ample wit and humour to balance the bombast, and poignancy in the peeling back of the facade. Jane Asher has poise and counterpoise, kicking off the shoes and almost dancing her way to denouement. Their scenes include, incidentally, a full and fine three-course meal, expertly served by charming waiter Ash Rizi, who makes the part much more than a walk-on.
In resolving the conflict, Hilde now bookends the play. Jessica Turner is again correct, slightly Teutonic, but with wisdom to know her husband and courage to confront him. “Verleugne dich!” Deny yourself! The words are from the mouth of Goethe’s Faust – himself perhaps the most tortured soul in European literature. Must Sir Hugo still deny himself? Or can he at last become true to himself?
This is not one of the very great plays. It never quite escapes that cloistered, rather self-indulgent feel. But it speaks truths about our human capacity to understand, to forgive, and to heal. A Song at Twilight is a very fine piece of theatre, and this lovely production does it absolute justice.
By Kevin Anderson