“The most beautiful thing about having people to stay is when they leave.”
There’s always a danger, when delving into the realms of rarely-produced works by playwrights in the hope of unearthing of a gem, of forgetting that there are often good reasons why some plays gather dust on a shelf even whilst others are regularly revived. It is currently Noël Coward’s turn to have his back catalogue exhumed, in the form of this touring production of the 1956 play Volcano but though it is an addition to Coward’s oeuvre that might be appreciated by completists, it can hardly be said to be a salutary contribution to his legacy.
The warning signs are there: the play was never performed in Coward’s lifetime (programme notes suggest it would have been too frank for the censors but the play didn’t even get that far as it was turned down flat by his producer) despite being written nearly 20 years before his death and came at a time when he had just become a tax exile, having moved to Jamaica amidst a cluster of colonial celebrity chums whose intrigues could well have inspired the events of seen here.
Set on the volcanic (natch) South Pacific island of Samolo, in and around the house of widowed Adela Shelley, we follow the lives and loves and romantic entanglements of a louche group of Brits. Ellen has come to stay with Adela, who is being pursued by Guy, whose wife Melissa turns up and snubs Ellen, who then decides to pursue Guy in revenge. Oh, and the neighbours on the banana plantation next door keep popping round. And the volcano keeps rumbling in anticipation of an eruption.
But it is an eruption that never comes, dramatically speaking at least. The pace is sluggish throughout, director Roy Marsden does little to conceal that this is mostly scene after scene of people sitting around chatting, which wouldn’t be quite so bad if the dialogue wasn’t so flat, even criminally boring in places. There’s precious little cutting humour, no satirical commentary on the blinkered way of life here, just endless meanderings about mules and coffee and a terribly shoe-horned-in revelation of bisexuality (though fans of awkward male wrestling might approve).
Simon Scullion’s set of an open veranda is perfectly functional but unwisely tries to recreate a tropical volcanic mountainside at the rear which just look incredibly cheap and artificial. And it is an artificiality that seeps into a large proportion of the cast, whose stiff mannered English-isms rarely transform into convincing drama, just Finty Williams breathing a little warmth as one of the neighbours and Dawn Steele lending Melissa an icily compelling presence.
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 9th June then touring to Bath, Cambridge, Eastbourne, Shrewsbury, Guildford, Oxford, Brighton, Bromley and Malvern.