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Nude with Violin by Noel Coward, adapted by Peggy Wells

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Nude with Violin by NoŽl Coward, adapted by Peggy Wells (1970). Dir. Glyn Dearman. Perf. Aubrey Woods, Joyce Carey, Patricia Routledge. BBC Radio 4 Extra, 14 March 2015. BBCiPlayer http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b055f6vq to 13 April 2015

I thought the day would never come when I would admit to being thoroughly irritated by NoŽl Coward. He writes in a particular way, his staccato dialogue redolent of an era when surface mattered. His characters spar with one another, while at the same time showing a marked reluctance to disclose their true feelings. To do so would represent some form of weakness. There are moments, for example in his playlet "Still Life" (that formed the basis for "Brief Encounter"), where Coward shows an acute understanding of human suffering, but for the most part he seems content to sustain the brittle comedy of upper and upper-middle class mores.

At its best Coward's comedies are beautifully constructed and well-written, providing opportunities for actors to indulge in verbal tennis-matches while trying their best to cope with what seems like a hostile world. This is especially evident in "Blithe Spirit," where Charles Condomine has to cope with the unexpected re-appearance of his first wife in ghost form, conjured up by the bumbling Madame Arcati. The play was recently revived on Radio 4, with the cast of "The Archers" performing it. At its worst Coward's writing can seem trite in the extreme, his characters superficial, the plots hackneyed. This is certainly true of "Nude with Violin," a mid-Fifties comedy that ran for a year in the West End with John Gielgud and Michael Wilding in the leading role. Both actors had considerable drawing-power at that time, which helps to explain the play's success. In Glyn Dearman's revival, however, despite the efforts of a competent cast including Aubrey Woods, Patricia Routledge and Coward's long-term companion Joyce Carey, "Nude with Violin" came across as a clichťd tale of a hoax on the artistic world by the recently-deceased Paul Sorodin, producing unspeakable consequences for the remaining members of his family. Eventually they are led out of trouble by the scheming butler Sebastian (Aubrey Woods), who manages to feather his own financial nest at the same time. There were plenty of characteristically Coward-like exchanges between the butler and his employers, with June (Patricia Routledge) trying her best to pour oil on troubled waters. Yet the entire plot seemed highly inconsequential, a relic of a bygone era (especially by the mid-Fifties, when dramatic tastes had radically changed).

Listening to this 1970 revival, I also understood how fashions in radio drama production have also changed over the last forty-five decades. The pace seemed slow, almost statuesque, with very few sound-effects to break up the endless flow of chat. Such strategies only served to highlight the play's shortcomings. I am grateful to Radio 4 Extra for bringing this little-known example of Coward's oeuvre to light, but I certainly wouldn't be particularly keen to encounter it once more.