The Tennessee Williams of Night of the Iguana without the heat. The Harold Pinter of Old Times without the ambiguity. The Noel Coward of yore, without the wit. Or any trace of sub-text. By 1956, the year that brought Brecht to Britain and in which Jimmy Porter smashed at least some of the existing theatrical conventions, it seems The Master had had his day.
Written in that year, Volcano was never produced in Coward’s lifetime. Some of the themes were too blatant and the writing just not good enough for dear old Binkie Beaumont to take the risk. There’s certainly a familiar elegance in the dialogue but almost nothing in the way of dramatic impact. The musicality of the husband and wife argument that ends the first act ends not in a fiery eruption but a tentative rumble and the theatrical punch that Coward once wielded is no longer there. When the mountain does spew its load, it’s laughable, looking like but without the sophistication of a 70s disaster movie, as actors wobble around and a beam that until then had served no apparent purpose drops amid a smattering of dust. Coward gives director Roy Marsden and his cast little more to work with.
He based this convoluted tale of marital infidelities and casual couplings on the activities he observed amongst the ex-pat community in his home of exile, the island of Jamaica. Prominent among them was Ian Fleming, who modelled his greatest creation in his own likeness, and who crops up in the play in the guise of the philandering Guy “Guido” Littleton. He’s played by Jason Durr at first with a martini in hand and believable Errol Flynn swagger but increasingly resembling Rik Mayall’s Captain Flashheart, whose “I like the beard, gives me something to hang on to” becomes more relevant as the plot progresses.
Against a backdrop of a grumbling volcano on the fictional island of Samolo, he begins in pursuit of the recently widowed Adela Shelley (a sympathetic Jenny Seagrove) but soon turns his attention to the younger, blonder Ellen Danbury (Perdita Avery) before the latter’s husband turns up, and with him the sexual heat. The intimations of homosexuality are brave for the time, and far more daring than anything Rattigan would have attempted, but are clumsily handled. Dawn Steele does the best she can with Guy’s bitchy wife Melissa but the character’s hostility is so overt there’s little she can bring to it in the way of subtlety. Robin Sebastian as the silly arse Robin and Finty Williams his devoted wife Grizzy are solid in support.
Simon Scullion’s set, atmospherically lit for the first half at least, is dominated by a rocky coil that suggests the action is taking place within the volcano itself. The evening has something of the charm of the all-but-lost art of three-weekly rep: a second-rate play, hastily rehearsed and executed with some degree of skill by a cast eager to please. As a lost work by a once great playwright, it’s a damp squib.