Variety performance

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Plays

The Astonished Heart

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Astonished Heart is the story of a happily married psychiatrist who gradually sinks under the emotional pressure of falling passionately in love with his wife’s friend Leonora. Christian is tortured by jealousy and by his acute professional awareness of his obsession, gradually losing his control but not his fascinating articulacy.

The Astonished Heart is a short play from the Tonight at 8.30 cycle, conceived by Coward as an antidote to the boredom of a long run of the same script. It is a sequence of ten plays to be performed by the same cast in sets of three, alternating matinées and evenings, ranging from farce to melodrama to romantic comedy.

After touring, Tonight at 8.30 was produced at the Phoenix Theatre in London in 1936.

Charles B. Cochran's 1931 Revue

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

'A sketch for a revue must be quick, sharp, funny (or sentimental) and to the point, with a good, really good black-out line. Whether the performers are naked or wearing crinolines is quite beside the point; the same rule applies'.

Thus did Noël Coward describe the ingredients for a successful revue sketch; in the 1920s and 1930s he mastered and defined the art of the revue – short and often topical or satirical sketches, many of which were a lead-in to a song. He started producing sketches for some of the most famous revues of the period.

Charles B. Cochran's Revue was first presented by Charles B. Cochran at the London Pavilion, on 19 March 1931. It ran for just 27 performances. Although advertised as having 'Music by Noël Coward and others', it in fact had only five Coward numbers and only one of them could be considered as a semi-sketch.

Come into the Garden Maud: from Suite in Three Keys

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Come into the Garden Maud is the final play in the trilogy, Suite in Three Keys, in which each play is set in the same Swiss hotel suite. It was written by Coward in 1966, and represents the last of his output for the stage before he died.

Anna-Mary Conklin and her husband Verner are an exceedingly wealthy American couple and the stars of Come into the Garden Maud. While Anna-Mary, a social-aspirant, is nervously throwing a dinner-party offstage to entertain a prince she wants to impress, Verner – who cares little for the niceties of society life – gets along very well with the aristocratic, but down-to-earth, Maud Caragnani – very well indeed.

Family Album

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Featherway family are gathered glumly in the drawing room in 1860 after their father’s funeral. But as Madeira is drunk, dressing-up boxes unearthed, songs sung, childhood memories re-discovered and the scandalous secrets of the will revealed, the gloom turns into what Coward described as ‘a sly satire on Victorian hypocrisy.’

Family Album is a short play from Tonight at 8.30, originally starring Gertrude Lawrence and Coward himself, conceived by Coward as an antidote to the boredom of a long run of the same script. It is a sequence of ten plays to be performed by the same cast in sets of three, alternating matinees and evenings, ranging from farce to melodrama to romantic comedy.

After touring, Tonight at 8.30 was produced at the Phoenix Theatre in London in 1936.

Fumed Oak

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Fumed Oak is a satisfying suburban comedy in two acts: in the first, Henry Gow sits silently as his grumbling mother-in-law, his snappish wife and his whining daughter bicker over breakfast; in the second, he announces that he has changed his name and bought a boat ticket, and, leaving them the house and a barrage of insults he has been saving for over ten years, goes out of the front door with glee.

Fumed Oak, originally starring Gertrude Lawrence and Coward himself, is a short play from the Tonight at 8.30 cycle, conceived by Coward as an antidote to the boredom of a long run of the same script. It is a sequence of ten plays to be performed by the same cast in sets of three, alternating matinées and evenings, ranging from farce to melodrama to romantic comedy.

After touring, Tonight at 8.30 was produced at the Phoenix Theatre in London in 1936.

London Calling!

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

'A sketch for a revue must be quick, sharp, funny (or sentimental) and to the point, with a good, really good black-out line. Whether the performers are naked or wearing crinolines is quite beside the point; the same rule applies'.

Thus did Noël Coward describe the ingredients for a successful revue sketch; in the 1920s and 1930s he mastered and defined the art of the revue – short and often topical or satirical sketches, many of which were a lead-in to a song. He started producing sketches for some of the most famous revues of the period.

London Calling! was first presented by André Charlot at the Duke of York's Theatre, London, on 4 September 1923. It ran for 316 performances.

On With the Dance

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

'A sketch for a revue must be quick, sharp, funny (or sentimental) and to the point, with a good, really good black-out line. Whether the performers are naked or wearing crinolines is quite beside the point; the same rule applies'.

Thus did Noël Coward describe the ingredients for a successful revue sketch; in the 1920s and 1930s he mastered and defined the art of the revue – short and often topical or satirical sketches, many of which were a lead-in to a song. He started producing sketches for some of the most famous revues of the period.

On with the Dance was first presented by Charles B. Cochran at the London Pavilion, on 30 April 1925. It ran for 229 performances.

Playlets, Additional Sketches and Early Pieces

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

'A sketch for a revue must be quick, sharp, funny (or sentimental) and to the point, with a good, really good black-out line. Whether the performers are naked or wearing crinolines is quite beside the point; the same rule applies'.

Thus did Noël Coward describe the ingredients for a successful revue sketch; in the 1920s and 1930s he mastered and defined the art of the revue – short and often topical or satirical sketches, many of which were a lead-in to a song. He started producing sketches for some of the most famous revues of the period.

Throughout his career, Coward wrote many sketches and playlets that were not part of one of the many revues to which he lent his name to great success. Those works are gathered here, arranged chronologically, from 'What Next', written in 1915 to 'Some other Private Lives' (a parody on Coward's own more famous work), written in 1930.

'Red Peppers'

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

A lovingly cynical tribute to the music hall, ’Red Peppers’ features a performing couple whose onstage choreography and off-stage marriage leave something to be desired.

Lily and George are still doing the same venerable routine of lamely comic songs and hackneyed patter that George’s parents were doing before them, and as they change out of their sailor costumes after a disastrous performance, they snap and scrap in a comic but sympathetic picture of variety show life.

’Red Peppers’ is a short play from Tonight at 8.30, originally starring Gertrude Lawrence and Coward himself, conceived by Coward as an antidote to the boredom of a long run of the same script. It is a sequence of ten plays to be performed by the same cast in sets of three, alternating matinees and evenings, ranging from farce to melodrama to romantic comedy.

After touring, Tonight at 8.30 was produced at the Phoenix Theatre in London in 1936.

Set to Music

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

'A sketch for a revue must be quick, sharp, funny (or sentimental) and to the point, with a good, really good black-out line. Whether the performers are naked or wearing crinolines is quite beside the point; the same rule applies'.

Thus did Noël Coward describe the ingredients for a successful revue sketch; in the 1920s and 1930s he mastered and defined the art of the revue – short and often topical or satirical sketches, many of which were a lead-in to a song. He started producing sketches for some of the most famous revues of the period.

Set to Music was first presented by John C. Wilson at the Music Box Theatre, New York, on 18 January 1936. It ran for 129 performances.

The successor to music hall in Britain and the equivalent of vaudeville in the United States, with which it had much in common. Variety essentially stemmed from the efforts of Sir Oswald Stoll to upgrade music hall at his Coliseum Theatre in the West End by including, in addition to the comic singers of the day, a much wider range of entertainment. Though this recipe was not entirely successful at the Coliseum, a rather broader version of it gained appeal after the First World War in the leading provincial theatres and in the West End at the London Palladium. A number of former music hall stars transferred quite happily to the new form of entertainment, though in time they were replaced by other performers with a more informal approach. The character comedians of the music hall were often replaced by a new breed of humorist who specialized in talking directly to the audience or by double crosstalk acts. Singers were expected to present produced acts. There was invariably room on the average variety bill for two or three speciality acts presenting such feats of skill as juggling, magic, acrobatics, balancing and various forms of dance. For 40 years variety was constantly refreshed by new blood from other media, for instance films, radio and gramophone records, and by artists from overseas, notably the United States, which, in the vaudeville circuits that had begun to flourish before the First World War, had created the type of performer particularly suitable for variety.

A medium of infinite flexibility within its preferred two performances a night format, variety theatres presented almost every conceivable type of act. For some years, bands that had gained radio reputations were in demand, taking over the second half of the bill and presenting a variety show in miniature from their own resources. From the early 1930s onwards, radio did much to create a new audience for variety, the public being eager to see their favourites in the flesh. The Moss and Stoll circuits, which controlled the largest theatres in the biggest cities, were the pinnacle of the variety profession, offering long tours to performers from Britain and overseas, but beneath them were numerous No. 2 and 3 theatres in smaller towns, which offered a useful training ground to artists. There were surprisingly few artists who spent their whole career in variety, many appearing part of the year in pantomime and summer shows. Variety was effectively killed by television, many of the theatres being demolished or converted to other uses such as cinemas or bingo halls. Those that have remained have become some of Britain's most successful mixed-programme touring theatres. Through its relatives cabaret and revue, variety influenced theatrical innovators throughout the century, and in the 1980s gave rise to new variety.

from Peter Hepple, The Continuum Companion to Twentieth-Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London, 2002).