Noel Coward’s Semi-Monde running at the Oxford Playhouse this week, is a delightful romp through the opulence and extravagance of Paris in the roaring twenties. Beneath a façade of calculated politesse is a world of bitching, gossip, and scandal, appealing to the secret voyeur within each member of the audience. We watch with mingled feelings of fascination and repulsion the fleeting snapshots of hedonism and deceit recalling Holden Caulfield’s observation in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye: ‘fascinating to watch, even if you don’t want it to be.’
Albeurne’s art deco set design combines glamour and elegance, reflected in the cast’s beautiful costumes. Swinging jazz adds to the atmosphere, with the clever touch of adapting contemporary songs such as Beyonce’s ‘Crazy in Love’ into a hilarious remix that had the audience in tears. The cloud of smoke hanging over the stage only adds to the decadent atmosphere.
Carla Kingham’s direction manages the fluid and dynamic play well: the cast bustles on and off stage, treating the audience to snippets of facile small talk and whispered gossip, engaged in a constant power-play within the aggressive rules of this social etiquette. In a short play with such a huge cast, an exploration of characters’ emotional states is bound to be difficult. Indeed, some members of the cast are reduced to two-dimensional caricatures. In some cases, this works brilliantly; Barnabas Iley-Williamson’s flashy campness had the audience in fits of laughter with his brilliantly delivered one-liners, Clare Pleydell-Bouverie’s depiction of the waspish and possessive lesbian partner captured the character’s bitterness, but sometimes crossed the fine line into overacting. Amelia Sparling stood out, however, as the perfect embodiment of Dorothy Price’s spoilt self-indulgence, sustaining the society-girl’s discontent pout even when out of the spotlight, and thus exuding a ‘Made in Chelsea’-esque it-girl dissatisfaction – meanwhile, Alexander Wickens makes the ideal Mark Francis type caricature as Beverley Ford.
Beneath the snapshots of blithe banter is a sense of the emptiness at the heart of this society. The play delights on two levels, with infectious wit that keeps the audience laughing, and a poignant sense of isolation and detachment beneath the glitz and glamour. Combining the two in such a short play is impressive and enjoyable, pulled of in style by Kingham.
PHOTO/ Jack Sain