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Suite in Two Keys

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Noël Coward's Suite in Two Keys consists of Shadows of the Evening and A Song at Twilight, two plays taking place in the same fancy hotel suite in Lausanne in the sixties. In the first, the businessman George Hilgay, who seven years ago left his wife, Anne, and children to live with Linda Savignac, has been diagnosed as having only nine months to live. Linda has summoned Anne from London, because Anne and George still care for each other, and the three uneasy allies try to work out a modus vivendi to make George's last months as pleasant as possible. It is not at all clear how this will be done, nor is it of overwhelming concern to us. The dialogue is less fizzy than in earlier Coward, but he is trying to be more serious here.

In the second play, which also exists in a full-length version, the successful playwright-novelist Sir Hugo Latymer and his German wife of two decades, Hilde, are dropped in on by the actress Carlotta Gray, a long-ago mistress of Hugo's. She is writing her autobiography and wants permission to quote from the love letters Hugo wrote her, which he angrily refuses. But she also has another set of love letters from Hugo, to Perry Sheldon, a male friend of Carlotta's, who, dying, gave them to her; an American scholar writing a book about Hugo would make a meal of them. Hilde, whose German lover was killed by the Nazis, became Hugo's secretary and later his loveless but loyal wife. He never confessed his past to her; now it comes out, but with rather unexpected results.

What saves both these very minor plays is a certain sophistication, and the occasional spark left over from Coward's heyday. Deftly directed by John Tillinger and nicely designed, they offer good roles to Paxton Whitehead, an inspired clown who can drag out a final consonant longer than anyone, and always amuses; and to Hayley Mills, whose Anne and Hilde are suave and charming, and whom we are happy to hail after too long a hiatus since her child-actress days. Also to Judith Ivey, who, despite an expert British accent, is rather too obvious and unrefined in her two roles. But then, Coward himself was less refined than he thought: "The general consensus of opinion," he has Hugo say, two tautologies in a mere five words.


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