‘Comedies of manners quickly become obsolete when there are no longer any manners’, declares the Jeevesian butler in Noel Coward’s Relative Values (1951). His words strike at the heart of the play’s central theme – the gradual erosion of social mores and class distinctions in post-war England – but while the manners may be out of fashion, the plot is certainly not. Indeed, this sparky revival directed by Trevor Nunn at the Harold Pinter Theatre proves that the traditional comedic style can still pack a side-splitting punch.
It’s 1951, and the upper-crust family of Marshwood House are in a bit of a to-do. Nigel, Earl of Marshwood, has announced his engagement to the Hollywood actress Miranda Frayle, and the household is unenthusiastically disposed to this clash of classes. His mother, the Countess (Patricia Hodge), is reluctantly snobbish about the match; the butler, Crestwell (Rory Bremner,) ruminates philosophically about the impossibility of social equality; but the lady’s maid, Moxie (Caroline Quentin), intends to pack up and leave altogether – Miranda is her long-estranged sister, and to serve as her downstairs inferior ‘just wouldn’t do’. Pandemonium ensues, cushions fly across the lavish set and hierarchies are momentarily inverted, before the Countess contrives to hinder the marriage and keep hold of her maid. All ends predictably well, with the old order restored and the settee quaintly replumped.
The plot itself is a rather conventional one of its kind, but the sparkling wit of Coward’s script is brought fully to life by this splendid cast. Hodge is scintillating as the manipulative matriarch: her deft performance in comic timing is balanced with glimmers of a more rounded personality, as her aristocratic instinct vies with modern reason. Quentin similarly excels as the hysterical Moxie, and her jubilant tirade against the sister who proclaimed her a dead, drunken wastrel to the press is a particular highlight. Both actresses prove themselves to be true veterans of comedy, and Steven Pacey’s homosexual interpretation of the Countess’ foppish nephew adds a lively dimension.
Ultimately, this particular production is steeped in a simple evocation of nostalgia. Each scene is interspersed with an authentic, cinematic montage of 1950s Britain. The play itself was written just before Winston Churchill returned to replace Atlee’s labour government, and Coward appears to consolidate these conservative values with renewed optimism. But as the predicament between Moxie and Frayle ‘mocks’ the ‘frailty’ of the British class system, the subtext is less stable. It seems fitting that the curtain falls on the two servants toasting the last of Crestwell’s sagacious remarks: ‘the final glorious disintegration of the most unlikely dream that ever troubled the foolish heart of man – social equality!’ The real triumph is downstairs, and this reversal of perspective reverberates with irony.
Nunn is developing a successful track record as a director for what he calls ‘the rediscovery of a neglected masterpiece, the discarded jewel, covered in dust, untouched in centuries, becoming again a burnished glittering gem.’ On laughs alone, Relative Values shines without a speck. ****