The Worst Noël

Sticks and stones: Twiggy in If Love Were All.Photo: Mark Higashino

Is it the good turtle soup or merely the mock?” asks Noël Coward’s chief rival, Cole Porter, in a famous lyric. I must sadly report that If Love Were All, the two-actor revue of Cowardiana, is not even as tasty as mock turtle – merely a mockery of the popular playwright-composer and his beloved leading lady, Gertrude Lawrence. Which does not mean that a singularly innocent audience (one patron was overheard affirming that Coward wrote only the lyrics, the tunes being by Irving Berlin) did not groove on this thin gruel.

The piece is described in the program as “an entertainment devised by Sheridan Morley,” the critic and Coward biographer, and “directed and adapted by Leigh Lawson,” actor-director and husband of half the show’s cast, Twiggy. What further need of adaptation has something already devised? Especially since it is so simple: One performer personates Noël; the other, Gertie. Nineteen well-known Coward songs are interspersed with a couple of brief readings from the plays and a smattering of data about a celebrated amitié amoureuse that, but for Coward’s sexual preference, would have been a love affair. A loving tribute, granted; if love were all, If Love Were All would suffice.

Much hangs by the interpreters of this show, which, in various versions, has perambulated greatly. As Noël, we have the American Harry Groener, an amiable musical comedian who suggests not so much Coward as Frank Langella playing Coward, which he recently did. Though not ungifted, Groener lacks Coward’s sleek looks, tart delivery, stylish wit, and Englishness. He can, however, tap dance, and does so here, something Coward wouldn’t even have deigned to consider.

Coward had an uncanny gift for fusing cool sophistication and sentimentality: emotion wearing an ultra-chic, not-quite-see-through blouse. His dialogue requires this kind of delivery: Rice Krispies with a British accent. Clipped, laconic, understated, but with quirky rubatos and accelerandos to convey something simmering underneath. Groener, despite a shot at an English accent, is bluff, sincere, guileless – American virtues of no use in Coward. And then he taps.

Twiggy, as we have seen elsewhere, is not without some ability. But as Gertie, she strains and postures, struts and croons with what sounds like a jowly growl (not that she has actual jowls – she still looks very nice), all without Lawrence’s poise and ease. Above all, she cannot handle innuendo. When the remarried husband of Blithe Spirit, still jealous of his dead first wife, asks her ghost whether a secret rival, Captain Bracegirdle, made love to her, Twiggy answers, “Only very discreetly. He was in the cavalry, you know.” Here everything depends on the fraught pause, or pauses, which Twiggy doesn’t supply.

For much less money, potential ticket-buyers could acquire authentic Noël and Gertie recordings and do rather better. Even the trusty Tony Walton delivers décor and costumes more suited to an Omaha nightclub. Perhaps he was just trying to anticipate the reviewers.

The Worst Noël