Noel Coward’s famous comedy, ‘Blithe Spirit’, is being presented at the Arts Centre, from 6 to 9 September. Book now! Its presenter, Tessa Coleman (also taking the leading part of ‘Madame Arcati’), describes her lifelong fascination with ‘The Master’
Some readers may know that my company, TC productions, was due to present the immortal (in so many ways) Noel Coward play, Blithe Spirit, in May 2020. Covid struck and we fell at the last post but it will be on at the Arts Centre, 6 to 9 September this year – so book now!
I’m playing Madame Arcarti, the bumbling eccentric medium, who brings back a first (deceased) wife to haunt her husband and his second wife – to great merriment and marital mayhem.
Arcarti is a plum role for we older actors – everyone from film stars to theatrical dames has taken her on. From Margaret Rutherford to Angela Lansbury, Hattie Jacques, to Judi Dench – stage, screen, radio – Arcarti’s’s the gift that keeps on giving.
The choice was actually not mine, but my director Sassie Bisson who opined on BBC Radio Jersey that Arcarti as a true British eccentric and so I was born to play the part! (There has been lively conversation among family and friends about my eccentricities or lack of them).
But it got me thinking – was I born to play her? As a Coward fanatic all my life, maybe so: the man they called The Master has been an ever present figure in my life
I was named Tessa after the lead character in the Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy, in which Noel Coward had played the romantic lead and had a huge hit with it.
My parents, great fans, had the rather risqué songs of the ‘Noel Coward in Las Vegas’ and ‘Noel Coward in New York’ LPs playing constantly on the radiogram in my youth and family legend has it that I seemed able to laugh in all the right places at the age of 5! (I’m sure I wasn’t that precocious but I certainly got great enjoyment from the comedy and those clipped English tones set in early).
My parents had all his plays in several bound volumes on their book shelves (now on mine) I discovered them aged 8. I fell in love with them immediately, (they seemed familiar to my ear) and had all my school friends assembled for play readings of the sophisticated banter, which must have made it even funnier coming from the mouths of 8-year-olds.
My first day at drama school in London in the 70s when we were given our play monologue pieces to learn and perform, amongst all the kitchen sink stuff, I was labelled ‘a Noel Coward sort of person” and given something from Blithe Spirit. I would later play Ruth (harassed second wife, haunted by dead first wife) in my year’s first production, and a couple of years later I played Amanda in Private Lives with Robin Askwith (later of the Confessions films).
The two divorcees meet up on their honeymoon to new spouses in the south of France. Robin, looking like Mick Jagger’s brother would seem an unlikely choice for Elyot but he was actually very good. He ‘played it like a self-made man,’ one of our tutors pronounced!
Later in Jersey, I reprised Amanda in 1981 with the late Lord George Villiers (another Noel Coward sort of person) and then several times in Noel and Gertie, the overview of Coward’s work.
It was during my drama school Private Lives that I wrote my only fan letter. To Sir Noel of course. Telling him how the younger generation adored his work too and asking him to the student production. He was incredibly kind and actually got in touch with me but was in hospital on the day (it was the beginning of his final health decline).
When Coward died in the 70’s I was in Cyprus working on a film with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. When they took a break from trying to kill each other (I jest) we had a drink (or 3/4/…) in his memory and the Cyprus Times asked me to write his obituary. Lights were turned out in the West End of London, of course, and in Broadway; he has the Noel Coward Theatre remembering him in London, and a plaque with A talent to Amuse ( a line from one of his songs) beneath his name in Poets corner in Westminster Abbey.
I have been a Coward fanatic all my life. When I met his biographer, Sheridan Morley, in the 90’s he gave me permission to play his wildly successful biographical show Noel and Gertie (charting Noel’s dealings with the actress, Gertrude Lawrence, who inaugurated Amanda in Private Lives) in its original format of four performers – two singers, two actors. Sheridan had never used this format on Broadway or the West End. He dug out his original draft and allowed us to perform it as a fundraiser for the Jersey Noel and Gertie fundraiser for the Opera House 1998 with Peter Le Breuilly
This did everyone a favour as it meant I didn’t need to sing and you had the dulcet tones of opera singer Sheila Harrison doing full justice to Mad about the Boy and I’ll see you again: Adam Stirling joined her as her Noel and Peter le Breuilly was my Noel accompanied on the piano by virtuoso Tony Davidson: John Nettles joined us as narrator, Pat Dubras was the director. We performed it as dinner theatre at the Hotel de France and a good time was had by all and a considerable sum (I think about £20,000) was raised.
I have been in many performances of Coward plays and reviews (even written a couple myself) over the years (along with many others). The last was just last year in Present Laughter for my own company TC productions. And this year with my Director, Sassie Bisson, choice of Blithe Spirit, I have come full circle. At drama school 50 years ago it was Ruth, this time the artless, eccentric Madame Arcarti, I hope, as I always do, that I do her – and more importantly, her wonderful creator, justice.