Cowardy Cowardy Custard

Cowardy Cowardy Custard 2024Red Peppers / Hands Across The Sea. Holden Street Theatres. 16 May 2024


In an era when short plays were really not the thing, Noël Coward decided to write a slew of them, primarily to showcase himself and Gertrude Lawrence. Under the collective title of Tonight at 8.30, the ten play cycle was intended to feature three plays across three evenings.


Holden Street Theatres is presenting two of these under the Cowardy Cowardy Custard moniker, which references Cowardy Custard (1972), a biographical revue featuring Coward’s work, produced in the latter years of his life. Red Peppers and Hands Across the Sea were written in 1936 and are quite contrasting in their depictions of society at the time.


Red Peppers was described by Coward as an “interlude with music” and so it is. Played respectively by Geoff Revell and Martha Lott, George and Lily Pepper are a very ordinary vaudeville act, playing the very ordinary vaudeville circuit in the days when England had such a thing. It is Lily’s bungle at the end of the first musical number Has Anybody Seen Our Ship which forms the basis of the ruckus that occurs in the dressing room afterwards. There’s a sadness to the second-rate, and both Revell and Lott portray the still burning ambition with an experienced balance, moving from pathos to cruelty to mutual affection with aplomb. Revell brings his marvellously mobile face to the role as he navigates the pair’s ongoing battles with the theatre manager (Brian Wellington) and orchestra conductor (David O'Brien) and defends his relationship with the star of the show, a fading Mabel Grace (Rebecca Kemp).


Rather than the Coward’s usual high society settings, Red Peppers is more the vaudeville set at the fag end of its era, with the pretensions of grandeur displayed by Mabel Grace an irritant to Lily Pepper, who in reality aspires to be where Mabel is (or has been).


The second play Hands Across The Sea is set in the high society drawing room of Lord Peter and Lady Maureen Gilpin (rumoured to be based on Lord and Lady Mountbatten). Lady Gilpin, known as ‘Piggie’ (Martha Lott), and her companion have been on a tour of the colonies, and have invited numerous people they met on their travels to come for tea when they are next in London. When one such couple turns up (Mr and Mrs Wadhurst, played by Geoff Revell and Rebecca Kemp), she mistakes them for another she has invited, and of course there is much comedic confusion as this is sorted out.


John Doherty as Lord Peter, a commander in the Royal Navy, portrays the character effortlessly, and is a strong anchor on the stage while Lott is the rather frizzy and dizzy foil. Piggie has invited other friends over at short notice to help out with the unexpected arrivals; Helen Geoffreys as the Hon Clare Wedderburn and Lieutenant Commander Alistair Corbett, known as Ally, played by David Archidiaco. Adding to the confusion is young Mr Burnham (Christopher Cordeaux) who arrives with plans for a speed boat for Lord Peter and is roundly ignored, being mistaken for someone else of course.


It is in this second play that Goers shows his hand at the direction of physical comedy. From slippery sofas to telephone cords and cumbersome cardboard tubes, there is some deft play here. Again Revell’s face is a star – he has few lines as the hapless Mr Wadhurst, but doesn’t really need them – he is a delight to watch.


At times the terr-ribly posh accents render the words unintelligible, and for both plays, the interaction between the characters is often left wanting. There is an over concentration on delivery; lines are spoken, cues are waited on, more lines are spoken; sometimes the characters don’t seem to be speaking to one another, so intent are they on reciting their lines.


Coward’s popularity may have waned over the years, but the writing is still very witty and diabolically clever. When the words are allowed to speak for themselves, these wonderful plays can be as enjoyable as they were for all the bright young things of his time.


Arna Eyers-White


When: 16 May to 1 Jun

Where: Holden Street Theatres – The Arch