Tuesday, January 1, 2013

A Talent to Amuse

To usher in the New Year, this morning I have been listening with complete fascination to A Talent to Amuse, a rare live recording of excerpts from the “midnight matinee,” which was staged on December 16, 1969, at the Phoenix Theatre in London in honour of Noël Coward on his seventieth birthday. The show was a marathon, with a cast of almost 200, and ran to 4 o’clock in the morning, but the excerpts here have been perfectly chosen and amount to just a fraction more than an hour and fifteen minutes. The CD has been made possible by the agreement and permission of the performers, their agents and, of course, in many cases, their executors and estates, as well as by the Noël Coward Society and Must Close Saturday Records (www.must-close-saturday-records.co.uk) (MCSR 3048). Dear Richard Warren put me onto this gem just before he died, but I haven’t had a chance to listen to it before now. Silly me, for it is wondrous. Highlights include John Gielgud in his prime reciting “The Boy Actor”; the great Irene Worth playing the brilliantly funny telephone sketch “Early Mourning”; Joyce Grenfell singing “If Love Were All”; Maggie Fitzgibbon singing “Why Do The Wrong People Travel?” and the marvelous Cyril Ritchard doing “Nina”—“She said ‘I hate to be pedantic but I’m driven nearly frantic / When I see that unromantic, sycophantic lot of sluts, / Forever wriggling their guts: / It drives me absolutely nuts!’” As well there are ravishing performances of “Mad About the Boy” by Cleo Laine and John Dankworth—again in their prime; “I’ll Follow My Secret Heart” by Patricia Routledge, and “That is the End of the News,” the batty ensemble from Sigh No More nimbly executed by Avril Angers, Hy Hazell, Stella Moray, and the great June Whitfield. Perhaps most moving of all, Celia Johnson recites “I’ve Just Come Out From England,” lines composed for imperial troops in Cairo, shortly before Noël Coward’s departure for Southeast Asia in 1943, and first printed in the Egyptian Mail. Seventy years is not such a long time, but these lines proclaim an English outlook, mood, and soul that might as well be 700 years farther distant.

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