I have seen this play variously described as Noël Coward's 'secret play', and his 'undiscovered masterpiece' (which obviously has now been discovered) and a 'rare play exhumed', together with alluring descriptions promising a glimpse into the 'saucy side' of the still revered and much-loved author. Sounds appealing, eh?
Sir Noël wrote 'Volcano' in 1956 when he was already living a 'laid back life in Jamaica' (according to his biographer) having become the first of Britain's high-profile tax exiles. But in the Britain of the 1950s the censor still had final say about what could and could not be shown on the stage, and the author's producers refused to give it an airing. So, it has been waiting to be discovered, or re-discovered, presumably in some dusty corner of an even dustier cupboard. As far as I can tell, this appears to be the play's West End premiere which, for some, will certainly add to the appeal.
Adela Shelley (played by West End regular Jenny Seagrove) is a wispy widow of 44 who runs a plantation on the fictional island of Samolo, a supposedly British territory situated in the south-western Pacific. Adela's home is perched precariously adjacent to a volcano which rumbles menacingly as events develop on stage.
We first meet Adela when she returns home to find the suave Lothario Guy Littleton waiting for her. They have been having an affair and Adela seems to be in love with Guy – or Guido as she calls him. But Adela draws the line at having sex with Guido and eventually terminates the liaison in the face of his persistence. It's a timely decision because Guy's wife Melissa is about to arrive from Blighty, though that does not seem to bother Guy too much. Melissa suspects that Guy is having an affair with Adela, so there is considerable tension in the air when they first meet. But Guy also has another admirer in the guise of the much younger Ellen danbury who has dropped-in on Adela after arguing with her engineer husband.
Roy Marsden's production is set in 1958. Artificial grass covers the stage like a well-kept bowling green from the Home Counties, and previous outpourings of lava from the volcano are frozen threateningly at the back of the stage. The characters smoke and drink incessantly, presumably because they have relatively few pastimes on the banana-dominated island, apart from eating lobster for lunch, that is. Jason Durr as Guy seems rather too obviously the wolf in wolf's clothing, complete with a pencil moustache that makes him something of a cartoon-like casanova. Jenny Seagrove's rather frosty Adela is a woman who cannot let go of the past and, one suspects, has deep-rooted psychosexual issues. There's commendably professional support from Finty Williams and Robin Sebastian as Robin and Grizelda Craigie (Adela's sensible and happily-married neighbours) and from Perdita Avery as Ellen Danbury who is trapped in a more unsatisfying marriage.
I doubt that many people would recognise this play as anything approaching saucy, certainly not in comparison with many offerings we have seen over the past 40 years or so. You would easily get spicier and more sexually explicit material in any episode of Eastenders. As for 'Volcano' being a (now discovered) 'masterpiece' I think it will largely disappoint. There are one or two witty lines, but the laughs are rare in a script that sometimes lacks credibility and genuine insight. Though the volcano does erupt in the end, the fireworks on stage are less explosive and the whole thing peters out in a kind of whimper.
"In general, the play is flabbily written and displays an ageing writer's disdain for the kind of sexual pleasures he once joyously advocated. The piece is well staged by Roy Marsden and persuasively acted."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Although Volcano is a second-rate work that, had it been produced, would doubtless have been considerably revised, it nevertheless reveals Coward’s gloriously sure touch upon the keys of human motivation...Ultimately Volcano is a curiosity, rather than an unearthed masterpiece. Yet it provides an evening of near-constant entertainment, and of unremitting interest. "
Laura Thompson for The Daily Telegraph