Noel Coward's 'The Astonished Heart' and 'Still Life'

The Liverpool Playhouse

Reviewed by Colin Serjent

Expecting to experience something resembling 1930s period charm, in watching two Noel Coward plays at the Liverpool Playhouse, I instead felt as if they had been taken off a shelf and dusted down - they were very dated and facile at best, and approaching a Little England philosophy at worst.

The first play, The Astonished Heart, was set in the confines of two living rooms, and Still Life took place entirely in a pokey little railway cafe.

There was very little reference in both plays to the outside world - there were brief mentions of a couple of Hollywood movies and film star Shirley Temple, and that was it.

People portrayed were caught up in their own, often melodramatic and neurotic, emotions, which left me cold. I felt no empathy with these hollow and spiritually bereft characters. Perhaps Coward meant it to be like this, I am not sure.

Why do people go to these type of plays?

I heard one remark during the interval, stating that people were so much nicer to each other then, and the plays give people a warm glow of a bygone era.

The decade when these plays were written, the 1930s, there was mass unemployment, a lot of people lived in slums, Britain ruled an Empire, the nation turned a blind eye to a mass military build-up by the Nazis, often with the tacit agreement of the elite of the middle classes.

People were so nice to each other at this time that the Second World War broke out in 1939!

The Astonished Heart basically centered around a psychiatrist who cracked up over his misguided desire for a vain woman who had ceased loving him, which led to him dying, after he jumped from his second floor window into the street.

Still Life, of which the film Brief Encounter was based, concerned major major sexual repression between two people who were both trapped in dull marriages. Although deeply in love, the prevailing constraints of the time denied them the chance to sleep together.

They continually met each other at the railway cafe, a highly unlikely scenario given that they wanted to keep their secret liaisons to themselves.

The plays could easily have been turned into radio plays - visually seeing them was largely unnecessary - the sound effects, notably of steam trains passing through the station could easily have been transferred to the radio.

A lot of great writing was produced during the 1930s, but this pair of plays was certainly not part of it.