First seen at the Theatre Royal Bath last year, Trevor Nunn’s production of Noël Coward’s Relative Values manages to get the best out a play that must have seemed old-fashioned even when it was first staged in 1951. Though it lacks the sharp wittedness of Coward’s pre-war work, this rather creaky portrayal of English class divisions and prejudices does in the end proves its comic pedigree in an entertaining series of personality and culture clashes.
The household of a stately home in Kent is sent topsy-turvy by the announcement that the young Earl of Marshwood is to marry a Hollywood starlet. While his mother the Countess seems unenthusiastic but resigned to this breach of social etiquette, her long-serving, faithful maid Moxie is aghast not just because the master is marrying beneath him but because his intended bride turns out to be her estranged sister. With the help of the unflappably pragmatic butler Crestwell a scheme is hatched to cover up any potential embarrassment though things do not work out quite as planned.
It may be difficult to take the seemingly trivial concerns of these silly people at all seriously, but Coward does convince us that they matter to them. He may be depicting a fast-disappearing, remote world of aristocratic privilege but there is an underlying emotional truth in some of the characters’ relationships, which humanises the rigid upstairs/downstairs barriers. Not only is our class system mildly satirised (if heavily weighted on the side of the status quo), there is also fun made of English and American cultural differences and misunderstandings.
You can clearly see why the kind of complacent theatre represented by Relative Values would have made the new wave of young playwrights in the late 50s and early 60s very angry, though as the huge success of Downton Abbey on TV has shown we still seem to have a boundless fascination with social hierarchy in this country.
Nunn gives the play a socio-historical context by presenting in-between-scenes newsreel footage (some genuine, some fake) of post-war Britain, with the progressive, egalitarian Labour government running out of steam as the electorate are about to vote back in a more traditional Conservative Party headed by the elderly, blue-blooded Churchill. And Stephen Brimson Lewis’s elegant library design adorned with family portraits and busts sets the right upper-crust tone.
Patricia Hodge gives a splendidly poised, cut-glass performance as the immaculate Countess, with a nice line in ironic put-downs as dry as her gin cocktails. The heartfelt outbursts of the forthright Moxie, played by the excellent Caroline Quentin, are amusingly contrasted with the phlegmatic philosophy of Crestwell in Rory Bremner assured stage debut. Sam Hoare is the snooty Earl, jealous of Leigh Zimmerman’s glamorous but untrustworthy actress as she dallies with Ben Mansfield’s old-flame film star, both out of their depth in this strangely ritualised world where everyone else seems to know their place.