Melissa Blease reviews Noël Coward’s A Song at Twilight, starring Simon Callow and Jane Asher, on at Theatre Royal Bath until 23 February

A Song at Twilight is one of prolific English playwright Noël Coward’s last works for the stage, written in 1965 and first produced the following year. At the time of writing (and, without giving too much away at this juncture, pertinent to the plot,) homosexual sex was still a criminal offence under English law, punishable by lengthy prison sentences and societal ostracisation. 

It’s widely acknowledged that Coward – himself a ‘congenital bachelor’ who firmly believed his private business was not for public discussion, and considered “any sexual activities, when over-advertised, to be tasteless” – loosely based A Song at Twilight on the memoirs of W Somerset Maugham… with, perhaps, influences and inspirations from his own life thrown into the mix.

Coward himself made his farewell stage appearance playing what was possibly the semi-autobiographical role of Sir Hugo in the West End production of the play in 1966; in this Theatre Royal Bath revival, directed by Stephen Unwin, Simon Callow walks in Coward’s shoes.

Ageing world-famous author Sir Hugo Latymer is an overindulged, egotistical, irascible old man, mollycoddled by Hilde, his supremely patient wife/personal assistant. And he is used to having his every whim danced upon by handsome young waiter Felix in his private suite at an elegant Swiss lakeside hotel. Despite Hugo’s frustrations (his health; his public image; other people), he leads, all told, a pretty good life. But that good life is about to take a distinctly bad turn…

40 years previously, Hugo had a two-year affair with Carlotta Gray, an actress whose career never quite took off. Carlotta has arranged to have dinner with Hugo in his hotel suite. Hilde has arranged for the menu to offer them both a trip down memory lane (and to make herself scarce for the evening). But Hugo isn’t quite sure what may lie at the end of that lane – and when Carlotta finally reveals their destination, he’s brought down to earth with a rather vulgar bump. Carlotta is not, as Hugo had believed, after revenge for his discourteous depiction of her in his recent autobiography, and neither is she after cash to fund her glamorous lifestyle.

She is, however, writing her own memoir… and is in possession of a collection of rather interesting letters that Hugo wrote to another old flame many years ago.

While the script is as crisp, fresh and laden with all manner of expeditious quips, nimble badinage and elegant ripostes as one would expect from a Coward drama, the pace doesn’t quite build as quickly as one would imagine Coward intended it to, making the opening scenes in particular slightly apathetic. As Unwin’s revival moves along, however, the tempo allows us more time to digest not only some of Coward’s best lines (best digested live; there be no spoilers here) but the sobering issues at the heart of the story too.

In the role of Hugo, Simon Callow skips between extravagantly theatrical, consummate luvvie, quick-witted rapper of repartee and woebegone, Wildean warrior lamenting the error of his ways – he is, in other words, vintage Callow. As Carlotta, Jane Asher is an absolute joy: a sashaying, animated, flame-haired charmer living the It Girl life she never fully enjoyed when she was a girl, and loving every moment of it. As stoic, acquiescent Hilde, Jessica Turner brings context, substance and backbone to the whole affair. And as Felix (the waiter with, as Hugo observes early on in the drama, “incredible shoulders”), Ash Rizi remains discreet and dignified at all times, despite all the unwanted, flirtatious attention from both Hugo and Carlotta

But despite the play’s lighter-hearted moments, A Song at Twilight is not a typically Coward-esque drama; it’s as much about remorse, regret and denial as it is about the social mores and diktats of the day. “Grab it while you can – grab every scrap of happiness while you can,” Coward wrote in 1925, putting words into the mouth of a character in another of his plays. When one leaves the theatre this time around, one feels nothing but a sense of melancholy that he may not have embraced such a sentiment in his own life.  

Main image: Simon Callow as Sir Hugo Latymer and Jane Asher as Carlotta Gray in A Song at Twilight. Credit: Nobby Clark