50 years ago, Noel Coward rewarded Trevor Nunn’s Hay Fever with a telegram, congratulating him on staging the “best ever” production of his play. Coward hadn’t actually seen it, but it was typical of his generous approach, which also saw him signalling goodwill to Alan Ayckbourn and Lionel Bart – grateful to the next generation for bringing him a second heyday, years after his songbook revues brightened up the 1920s stage.
Relative Values is a more sombre piece. Written in 1951, its washed with the weary tint of post-war drama. Nunn’s second go at directing Coward rounds up a well-seasoned band of comic actors – Rory Bremner, Patricia Hodge, Caroline Quentin – for a play with plenty to say, but few rolls in the hay.
Moxie (Caroline Quentin) is a maid who knows her place, and its downstairs. Preferably with a film mag or two. Her sister is a bit more of a madam, daring to flee to America, light up the silver screen, and then return to marry a convenient Earl – who unfortunately happens to be master of Moxie’s house. Moxie’s plans to flee are put paid to by her mistress Felicity, Countess of Marshwood (Patricia Hodge)’s emotional dependency on her . Instead, she’s squeezed into the Countess’s old clothes, in the hope they’ll Pygmalion her into a more socially acceptable shape, fit to share a dining table with the newly styled as starlet extraordinaire “Miranda Frayle”.
The play devotes a lot of time to discussion of Moxie’s (deeply contrived) predicament. Does class still matter? What separates the aristocracy from everyone else? The set is beautiful, a neo Classical library with august busts gazing down on the rather less dignified personages below. It harks back to the days when the aristocrats justified their presence by claiming virtue, honour, refinement, and learning as their exclusive property. Here, the butler Cresswell (Rory Bremner) has rather infuriatingly claimed a share of the virtue for himself, bandying about long words and elegant solutions, both to crosswords and to family dilemmas.
It seems churlish to criticise a drawing room comedy for being too static, but Trevor Nunn’s direction has everyone delivering lines like they’re requests for more cucumber sandwiches: reclining, and at no great speed. There are lots of good performances – Caroline Quentin sketches lots of colour into a potentially anaemic part, and Patricia Hodge is a pleasure to watch. Still, its the American scenes that really remind us that this is a comedy. Katherine Kingsley’s Miranda is brilliant, squeezing every ounce of humour from her puritanical, delusional American starlet part – the irony looks all the sharper these days, when the press mingles saintly interviews and wicked paparazzi snaps of celebrities slipping into the gutter.
Nunn doesn’t quite resist the temptation to elbow his audience sharply in the ribs. The most obvious attempt at directorial intervention is in the projections of 1950s newsreel between acts. They are fascinating in their own right, but making a minute-long clip on dwindling meat rations reflect on the luxurious drawing room scene that follows it feels a little bit too much like a class exercise – too heavy handed. It draws attention to what the play doesn’t do: engage with politics, beyond making jokes at the expense of Cresswell’s communism, or with what life for the working classes is like outside domestic service.
After a stodgy start, this play isn’t all ration-book fare; the second half picks up to a respectable trot, and there are plenty of laughs to be had. Its flirtations with social commentary are just that, though – its solid, even dour, heart won’t be given away to the young and vulgar.