Semi - Monde

  • Date:
    Monday, March 26, 2001
    Review by:
    Darren Dalglish

    Written in 1926, it has taken 75 years for this particular Noel Coward play to reach the West End. It most certainly would have fell foul of the Lord chamberlain’s censorships of plays, which did not end until 1968, and maybe this is why Coward did not submit this play at that time.

    If you see this drama you will see why it would have been unacceptable to censorship laws as nearly all its characters have illicit affairs and many of them are gay or lesbian. In its day, this play would certainly be looked upon as immoral.

    The drama takes place in the cocktail bar of the Ritz Hotel in Paris and is set between the two World Wars. Coward examines the self-indulgent lifestyles of the wealthy patrons as they slip from one relationship to another. It seems that he was critical of a society that would censor in plays what often took place amongst the rich and famous.

    The play lasts 2 hours with two intervals and these intervals are used to good effect as they separate the drama into three time periods. After each interval, time has moved on and we discover more about each character. We are introduced to a newly married couple, an older man and his young male lover, and many other types of relationships. However, in the following acts the innocence of the newly married couple is not what it seems, and the young male lover is discovering more about the opposite sex, and the other relationships are also exposed.

    Although there are some interesting characters and a great setting is provided for them, this drama lacks punch and has modest wit. I feel that Oscar Wilde would have had a field day with these characters, but Noel Coward seemed to be concentrating more on ‘shocking societies morals’ rather than writing a substantially pungent, and witty script.

    “Semi-Monde” is a pleasant play and it does have the occasional good line, but generally it is a light-weight drama that many modern day patrons will find ‘bland’. However, the cast of 28 manage to keep the scenes busy and they perform adequately. John Carlisle and Nichola McAuliffe are particularly strong.

    The show has received mixed reviews from the popular press…. SHERIDAN MORLEY for TELEXTEXT says, “ The production is a masterpiece of stage-management.” SUSANNAH CLAPP for THE GUARDIAN says, “It tinkles continually with beady phrases. It's an enjoyable crash course in Coward.” NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, “Semi-Monde fascinates as an experimental comedy that captures with scathing conviction the 1920s upper-middle classes in the grip of pleasure-fever.” CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, “The dialogue is so tiresomely jagged with sophistication” and goes on to say, “After two hours of cocktails and forced laughter, what comes after? The gloomy, hungover feeling that you've wasted yet another evening in the theatre when you could have been doing something far more enjoyable - the washing up, for instance.” JONATHAN MYERSON for THE INDEPENDENT says, “One of the most boring, uninviting and unintriguing plays I have ever endured.” PETER HEPPLE for THE STAGE says, "Thin plot mar overdue debut." And goes on to say, "How tame it seems today, and how silly." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for The TIMES says, “The glamour of Noël Coward’s Semi-Monde doesn’t dazzle.” JANE EDWARDES for TIME OUT says, "It's hard to feel either shaken or stirred."

    This is for Noel Coward fans only!

    (Darren Dalglish)

    **Production photos by Alastair Muir**

    Written in 1926, this is the first West End performance of Noël Coward’s Semi-Monde. Like so many pieces written during the first half of the 20th century, Semi-Monde fell foul of the all-powerful yet desperately out of touch, Lord Chamberlain. Coward did not even bother to trouble the Lord Chamberlain’s blue pencil with his play, as he believed (probably correctly), that his portrayal of homosexuals and lesbians, philanderers and adulterers, from the upper middle classes, would certainly be viewed as morally destabilising and thus, amended, rewritten or even banned outright.

    Philip Prowse first presented Semi-Monde at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre in 1977, but it has taken almost 25 years to bring this production to London’s Lyric Theatre. Originally titled Ritz Bar, Semi-Monde is set in the lobby bar of the Ritz in Paris, and allows us to watch as people come and people go, they argue, they flirt, fall in love, arrange trysts and then suffer the consequences – all for us to view. And all this is so beautifully crafted with Coward’s wonderful mastery of the English language – every word appearing to have been carefully selected for its effect.

    The nature of the piece requires us to be patient, waiting for the peaks within the action – but for me, this is part of the beauty of the play. It has an appeal to those that get a certain sense of voyeuristic pleasure from sitting in cafes watching as the world wonders by; those who do not mind sitting and waiting, as long as there are people to study. We watch as love blossoms between couples, and then wait as they inevitably tire of each other’s company, forming new loves and relationships. The final twist comes as (with time extend by poetic licence on the part of the director) the closing scene is played out under falling Nazi propaganda pamphlets, as the whole cycle begins once again; boy meets girl . . . yet this time in Second World War uniform – and indeed given the recent part the Ritz in Paris has played in the history of Diana and Dodi, one could be forgiven for saying that nothing has changed to this day.

    The set and staging are adequate, but it is the costumes that really stand out, bringing back all the opulence of the day; beautiful dresses, draped in jewels. The acting was on the whole good, although with such a large cast, it is difficult for some not to show up the shortcomings of others. I particularly enjoyed the role of Dorothy Price (Nichola McAuliffe), but this is not a play in which anyone character acts as focal point, as protagonist. The very nature of the play requires this to be one of true ensemble work.

    For any lover of Coward, Semi-Monde will surely appeal. Where it will disappoint is in the relatively superficial nature of the piece. With 28 players it is difficult for any one character to develop and evolve. Further there is no real story here, no real depth. There is a passing attempt at moralising, yet Jerome Kennedy’s (John Carlisle) commentary on what it is that truly leads them into relationships seems somewhat hollow in this context: “silly animals gratifying our own beastly desires”. And so it could be said that the play is itself entirely hollow, but that would be to miss the whole point.

    Tom Keatinge

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