Surprises abound in Semi-Monde, a delightfully dishonest comedy by Noel Coward on at The Playhouse this term. Concerned with the comings-and-goings of almost thirty characters at the Hôtel Ritz, Paris, Semi-Monde oozes 1920s excess and opulence. The numerous back-and-forths between the characters are pithy and charming, while the script often has several conversations going on in tandem.
Many directors would balk at such excess, worried that the cast would be too large, but director Carla Kingham isn’t concerned. It’s very much a ‘fun play,’ she asserts – it may be Coward’s ‘most autobiographical,’ treating issues such as homosexuality with a disarming frankness for a play written in 1927, but it’s witty and charming all the same. It’s a very light piece, and the audience – much like the characters, who flit between lovers at the drop of a hat – isn’t expected to carry much of an emotional investment, merely going along for the ride.
As for the cast, they seem to relish working in such a large group. I remark that, given the sheer number of actors involved, it’s not likely they all know each other’s real names, let alone character names. Kingham points out that many of the play’s characters don’t even meet, and the methods used to rehearse reflect this. Both ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ rehearsals have been used in order to meet the demands of working within such a broad play while still micromanaging the smallest of interractions.
The cast treated us to a rendition of some of the 1920s dances which are to be performed during the interval. There’s no cynicism present here, no bitterness or any trace of an attempt to comment on the decadence of upper-class society– it’s sheer, unadulterated fun. Flourishes such as this are a sign that Semi-Monde should be a breeze to watch, and Kingham tells me that the cast and crew are working really hard to evoke the world of the Hôtel Ritz for the audience. During the interval there’ll be a real bar on stage which the audience will be able to order from, and the entire performance will be accompanied by a live jazz band, featuring music composed by Toby Huellin (In Her Eyes, A Theory of Justice).
If nothing else the show should be good fun, but only time will tell if the enthusiasm of the cast and the novelty of the set-up will translate into a theatrical experience which does more than simply amuse. Still, after a term of Oxford drama which has seen the spooky In Her Eyes and the perverse Pitchfork Disney hit the theatres, and with the murderous Sweeney Todd on the horizon, maybe some stylish, jazzy fun is just the remedy – and Semi-Monde is sure to offer this in spades.
Semi-Monde is showing from the 19th to the 22nd of February at The Oxford Playhouse. Tickets from £11.