Tonight at 8:30

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Illustration by Ben Solowey of Lawrence and Coward in the Broadway production

Tonight at 8.30 is a cycle of ten one-act plays by Noël Coward. In the introduction to a published edition of the plays, Coward wrote, "A short play, having a great advantage over a long one in that it can sustain a mood without technical creaking or over padding, deserves a better fate, and if, by careful writing, acting and producing I can do a little towards reinstating it in its rightful pride, I shall have achieved one of my more sentimental ambitions."[1]

Tonight at 8.30 was first produced in 1935 in Manchester and on tour and played in London (1936), New York (1936–1937) and Canada (1938). The plays were performed in various combinations of three at each performance during the original run. The plays chosen for each performance were announced in advance, although a myth evolved that the groupings were random.[2] The plays have enjoyed several major revivals, and several films and television adaptations are based on them. From August to October 2009, the series was presented in repertory by the Shaw Festival.[3]

Background[edit]

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Coward wrote a succession of popular hits, ranging from the operetta Bitter Sweet (1929) and the extravaganza Cavalcade (1931), requiring a large cast, gargantuan sets and a complex hydraulic stage, to the intimate comedies Private Lives (1930), in which Coward starred alongside Gertrude Lawrence, and Design for Living (1932).[4] Coward said that after Private Lives, he felt that the public enjoyed seeing him and Lawrence together on stage, and so he wrote them as "acting, singing, and dancing vehicles for Gertrude Lawrence and myself".

Four of the plays in the cycle "break into spontaneous song... in the most unexpected places".[5] The songs from Tonight at 8.30 are as follows:[6]

  • "We Were Dancing", from We Were Dancing
  • "Has Anybody Seen our Ship?" and "Men About Town" from Red Peppers
  • "Then", "Play, Orchestra, Play" and "You Were There" from Shadow Play
  • "Drinking Song", "Princes and Princesses", "Music Box" and "Hearts and Flowers" from Family Album

Productions[edit]

Original provincial production and tour

Six of the plays (We Were Dancing, The Astonished Heart, Red Peppers, Hands Across the Sea, Fumed Oak and Shadow Play) were first presented at the Opera House, Manchester, beginning on 15 October 1935.[7] A seventh play, Family Album, was added on the subsequent nine-week provincial tour. The final three were added for the London run: Ways and Means, Still Life (later expanded into the film Brief Encounter) and Star Chamber, which was performed only once.[8]

In a programme essay, Coward praised the one-act play, hoping that the short plays in the cycle would well exploit the unique ability of the form to create and sustain moods.[1] The styles and subject matter range from broad farce to intricate comedies of manners to melodrama to romance, giving Coward a chance to show off his range as a playwright and actor. Some of the plays, such as Hands Across The Sea, were typical of Coward's familiar style of well-made comedies about the insiders and outsiders in society. Fumed Oak and Still Life were darker comedies. Perhaps the most popular play in the cycle was Red Peppers, and affectionate satire of vaudeville. Each group of three plays created an overall effect that demonstrated Coward's range of characters and techniques.

London and New York premieres

The first London performance was on 9 January 1936 at the Phoenix Theatre.[9] Matinées were sometimes billed as Today at 2.30. The Broadway openings for the three parts took place on 24 November 1936, 27 November 1936 and 30 November 1936, again starring Coward and Lawrence. Star Chamber was not included.[10] Coward directed all ten pieces in Tonight at 8.30, and each starred Coward and Gertrude Lawrence in the original British and New York productions. The London and New York runs were limited only by Coward's boredom at long engagements.[11]

Revivals

Major productions of parts of the cycle included Broadway revivals in 1948 (Red Peppers, Hands Across the Sea, Fumed Oak, Family Album, Shadow Play, and Ways and Means, starring Gertrude Lawrence and Graham Payn) and 1967 (Fumed Oak, Still Life and Ways and Means), 1981 at the Lyric Theatre in London (Shadow Play, Hands Across the Sea and Red Peppers), starring John Standing and Estelle Kohler and at the Chichester Festival in 2006 (Shadow Play, Hands Across the Sea, Red Peppers, Family Album, Fumed Oak and The Astonished Heart). In 1971, the Shaw Festival revived We Were Dancing, Family Album and Shadow Play, and in 2000, the Williamstown Theatre Festival revived We Were Dancing, Family Album, Hands Across the Sea (all starring Blythe Danner), Red Peppers, Shadow Play and Star Chamber.[5] The Antaeus Company in Los Angeles revived all ten plays in October 2007, as did the Shaw Festival in 2009.[12]

The first professional revival of the cycle in the UK was in April 2014, when English Touring Theatre staged all the plays except for Star Chamber. The critic Michael Billington wrote, "We are used to all-day stagings of Shakespeare. A marathon viewing of three Noel Coward triple bills, however, sounds like a banquet of soufflés. In the event, the nine plays … not only prove unexpectedly nourishing, but also reveal a lot about the author himself."[13] The production, co-produced by the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton, opened there before a three-month national tour.[14]

Adaptations[edit]

Several films have been based on the plays. We Were Dancing was broadly adapted as a film of the same name in 1942, with a screenplay by Claudine West, Hans Rameau and George Froeschel. It was directed by Robert Z. Leonard. The film starred Norma Shearer and Melvyn Douglas, and also featured Florence Shirley, Lee Bowman and Lenore J. Coffee.[15] Coward adapted Still Life for the screen as Brief Encounter in 1945. The film was remade in 1974 starring Richard Burton and Sophia Loren. In May 2009, Houston Grand Opera premiered an opera in two acts based on Brief Encounter, with music by André Previn from a libretto by John Caird.[16] For a 1952 film Meet Me Tonight, directed by Anthony Pelissier, Coward adapted Ways and Means, Red Peppers and Fumed Oak (called Tonight at 8:30 in the US)[17] Coward himself played Christian Faber in a 1950 film of The Astonished Heart (also starring Celia Johnson and Margaret Leighton).

Television adaptations of Red Peppers were released in 1937,[18] 1938,[19] 1958[20] and 1969.[21] Still Life was given a television production in 1951.[22] The NBC-TV anthology series Producers' Showcase debuted on 18 October 1954 with Shadow Play, Still Life and Red Peppers, produced and directed Otto Preminger, starring Ginger Rogers in all three; Martyn Green also starred in Red Peppers.[23] Hands Across the Sea was adapted for television in 1938.[24] In 1991, BBC television mounted productions of the individual plays with Joan Collins taking the Lawrence roles.[25]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b Shaw Festival Study Guide, 2009, p. 4. Accessed 17 March 2010.
  2. ^ The Times, 20 January 1936, p. 10; 11 February 1936, p. 12; 2 March 1936, p. 12; 6 April 1936, p. 10; 2 May 1936, p. 12; 10 June 1936, p. 14.
  3. ^ Belcher, David. "Brushing Up Their Coward in Canada", The New York Times, 17 August 2009
  4. ^ Hoare, p. 249
  5. ^ a b Brantley, Ben. "How to Savor Fleeting Joys: Smiles Suave, Brows Arched", The New York Times, 28 June 2000,
  6. ^ The Lyrics of Noël Coward, Heinemann, London, 1965, pp. 168–179
  7. ^ The Manchester Guardian, 16 October 1935, p. 11
  8. ^ Hoare, pp. 268–70
  9. ^ The Times, 10 January 1936, p. 10.
  10. ^ We Were Dancing and other plays at the IBDB database
  11. ^ Kenrick, John. "Noel Coward 101: Coward's Musicals", Musicals 101: The Cyber Encyclopedia of Musical Theatre, TV and Film
  12. ^ Belcher, David. "Brushing Up Their Coward in Canada". New York Times, 17 August 2009
  13. ^ Billington, Michael. "Tonight at 8.30 review – unexpectedly nourishing Noel Coward marathon", The Guardian, 11 May 2014
  14. ^ "Tonight at 8.30" English Touring Theatre, accessed 10 May 2014
  15. ^ We Were Dancing at the IMDB database
  16. ^ Walker, Lynne. "Brief Encounter: the opera". The Independent, 24 October 2008
  17. ^ Meet Me Tonight (1952) at the IMDB database
  18. ^ Red Peppers (1937) at the IMDB database
  19. ^ Red Peppers (1938) at the IMDB database
  20. ^ Red Peppers (1958) at the IMDB database
  21. ^ Red Peppers (1969) at the IMDB database
  22. ^ "Schlitz Playhouse of Stars", Still Life (1951) at the IMDB database
  23. ^ "Tonight at 8:30, Showcase Productions Library, accessed 16 October 2011
  24. ^ Hands Across the Sea (1938) at the IMDB database.
  25. ^ Truss, Lynne. "Tonight at 8.30", The Times, 15 April 1991

References[edit]

External links[edit]