Family Album (play)

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Coward and Lawrence in Family Album

Family Album is a short play by Noël Coward, one of ten that make up Tonight at 8:30, a cycle written to be performed across three evenings. It is described by the author as "A comedy of manners with music (period 1860)".

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]

Family Album was written and first performed in Birmingham during the 1935 pre-London tour of Tonight at 8.30 and was then produced in 1936 at the Phoenix Theatre in London. It was later presented in New York (1936–1937) and Canada (1938). Like all the other plays in the cycle, it originally starred Gertrude Lawrence and Coward himself.[2] The play has enjoyed several major revivals.


Six of the plays in Tonight at 8:30 were first presented at the Manchester Opera House beginning on 15 October 1935,[3] and Family Album was added on the subsequent provincial tour and first performed at the Theatre Royal, Birmingham, England, on 9 December 1935. The final three were added for the London run.[2] 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.[4] The first London performance of Family Album was on 9 January 1936 at the Phoenix Theatre.[5] 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 (including Family Album), again starring Coward and Lawrence.[6]

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.[7] Four of the plays in the cycle "break into spontaneous song ... in the most unexpected places".[8] Family Album contains four songs: "Drinking Song", "Princes and Princesses", "Music Box" and "Hearts and Flowers". The play was withdrawn from the Tonight at 8.30 programmes following the death of George V on 24 January 1936, because its funeral setting struck an inappropriate note, and it was not reinstated until April of that year.[9]

Major productions of parts of the cycle included Broadway revivals in 1948 (including Family Album and starring Gertrude Lawrence and Graham Payn) and 1967 (not including Family Album), in 1981 at the Lyric Theatre in London (not including Family Album), and at the Chichester Festival in 2006 (including Family Album). 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.[8] The Antaeus Company in Los Angeles revived all ten plays in October 2007, and the Shaw Festival did so in 2009.[10] In 1991, BBC television mounted productions of the individual plays with Joan Collins taking the Lawrence roles.[11]


In a middle-class drawing room in 1860, the Featherway family are all dressed in mourning as the paterfamilias has died. His family gather to hear the will of their deceased father. Warmed by glasses of Madeira, they reminisce – Jasper and Jane with restraint, and the tearful Lavinia ("Lavvy") more emotionally. An old toybox is produced, as is an old musical box; old songs are remembered and more glasses of wine are drunk. Suddenly Lavvy, her reticence overcome by wine, denounces the old man as a humbug, lecher, bully and all-round bad lot. The family is relieved that pretence has been abandoned, and the party atmosphere becomes much livelier. Daughter Lavinia and the butler, Burrows, liven up the proceedings even more by admitting that they have burnt the will that would have left the family fortune to their father's mistress.

Original cast[edit]

Critical reception[edit]

The Observer said of the first production, "It is sometimes nearly vulgar, sometimes nearly mawkish, and sometimes modernly smart."[12] The Times described the piece as "swerving, in Mr Coward's most uncomfortable manner, from sadness to fooling, from fooling to sentimentality, and from sentimentality to high jinks with the butler."[13] Coward himself called it, "a sly satire on Victorian hypocrisy, adorned with an unobtrusive but agreeable musical score. It was stylised both in its decor and its performance, was a joy to play and provided the whole talented company with good parts."[14]


  1. ^ Shaw Festival Study Guide, 2009, p. 4. Accessed 17 March 2010.
  2. ^ a b Hoare, pp. 268–70
  3. ^ The Manchester Guardian, 16 October 1935, p. 11
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ The Times 10 January 1936, p. 10.
  6. ^ Family Album and other plays at the IBDB database
  7. ^ Kenrick, John. "Noel Coward 101: Coward's Musicals", Musicals 101: The Cyber Encyclopedia of Musical Theatre, TV and Film
  8. ^ a b Brantley, Ben. "How to Savor Fleeting Joys: Smiles Suave, Brows Arched", The New York Times, 28 June 2000,
  9. ^ The Times 28 April 1936, p. 14
  10. ^ Belcher, David. "Brushing Up Their Coward in Canada". New York Times, 17 August 2009
  11. ^ Truss, Lynne. "Tonight at 8.30", The Times, 15 April 1991
  12. ^ The Observer 12 January 1936, p. 15
  13. ^ The Times, 10 January 1936, p. 10
  14. ^ Coward, unnumbered introductory page


External links[edit]