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Tuesday, May 5, 2009


This modest, but effective character study from the tail end of Noël Coward’s writing career is a poison-pen portrait of Somerset Maugham. The wee plot (never Coward’s strong suit) concerns a former lover who may or may not be trying to blackmail the great man over some embarrassing love letters. Coward knew Maugham well and the waspish characterization is not without sympathy, along with a few dollops of self-revelation. And while the shock of ‘outing’ Maugham/Coward has been largely defanged in the four decades since the play’s premiere (there’s certainly no surprise left in it), this allows us to take a fuller measure of Coward’s smooth construction & sheer stage craft. Deborah Kerr, who came out of retirement to play the ‘wronged’ lover, is fine, but Paul Scofield, without a trace of Maugham or Coward on display, is plus-perfect. Has a finer calibrated acting mechanism ever been caught on camera?

NOTE: This DVD (along with THE VORTEX, see below) is part of an extremely variable seven-disc BBC set imaginatively titled THE NOËL COWARD COLLECTION. Many of the plays are in rather dusty editions (or star Joan Collins!), but in addition to this & THE VORTEX, some of the short-story adaptations are very good and feature strong perfs from the likes of Tom Courtenay, Ian Richardson, Nigel Havers (in particularly winning form) and some unmatchable teamwork from Ian Holm & Judi Dench.

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