A pair of one-act Noel Coward plays make up this double bill—“We Were Dancing” and “The Better Half”—with both taking on the subject of marital affairs. These are both relatively obscure Coward plays, and in fact the latter was never actually published in the playwright’s lifetime, only rediscovered in 2007. Together they offer a slightly strange, but quite compelling insight into the nature of marriage, not to mention the mind of Coward.
The plays are only about half an hour each, and they are really more like situations than stories. The first of these, “We Were Dancing”, concerns an unhappily married woman, Louise, who falls suddenly and (at least she thinks) deeply in love with a stranger at a country club dance. As she and her new lover, Karl, inform her husband of her intention to leave with this stranger for Australia, both parties are forced to reflect on their duties to one another, their power over each other’s lives and the significance of so-called love at first sight.
It’s an interesting piece, and to Coward’s credit the main characters don’t respond with the kinds of passions or melodrama that one might expect in such a scenario. Instead, the husband and wife are surprisingly subdued about the situation. He is clearly distraught by this sudden, unexpected announcement, but also will not, as his sister urges, make this into a great confrontation or try to stop his wife by force. John MacCormick acts the part well, his pain feels very real, and Lianne Harvery opposite him does an equally good job in convincing us that her character has genuinely had this strange, infatuated epiphany which sets the play in motion.
The fault with the play is its conclusion, which feels a little flat, or at least fails to progress into any really interesting channels. But where the first play fails, “The Better Half” (which was indeed the better half) succeeds. Again we have an unhappily married woman, Alice, but this time her plot involves faking an affair. The source of her frustration is her husband’s demeanour—always so noble, so “big” about even small things, and she is determined to bring him down a notch.
Tracey Pickup, who plays Alice, manipulates her husband David so skilfully and nastily that we ought to hate her, but we are also drawn to this strange character whose motives and true feelings never quite become clear. The star of the night though is Stephen Fawkes, who manages to play the ever-generous, noble, kind and liberal David, without ever straying into caricature. His high-society accent is spot on too. The play builds and builds to a climax that David desperately tries to avoid, and it brings his personality under a level of scrutiny which he struggles to bear.
Neither play is a masterpiece by any means, and the first has particular issues. But the strength of this evening is the brining together of the two plays, which really do have some interesting parallels in the way that they depict the married couple in turmoil. The acting and production quality is generally strong and in general I think the cast do justice to the material. For fans of Coward this is a night that I’d certainly recommend.