Hands Across the Sea (play)

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Gertrude Lawrence and Everly Gregg in Hands Across the Sea

Hands Across the Sea is a short comic play by Noël Coward, one of ten that make up Tonight at 8:30, a cycle written to be performed across three evenings. 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]

The play was first produced in 1935 in Manchester and on tour and played in London (1936), New York (1936–1937) and Canada (1938). It has enjoyed several major revivals and a television adaptation. At its premières in Manchester and London Hands Across the Sea was played on the same evening as Fumed Oak and Shadow Play. Like all the other plays in the cycle it originally starred Gertrude Lawrence and Coward himself.[2]


Six of the plays in Tonight at 8:30, including Hands Across the Sea, were first presented at the Opera House, Manchester, beginning on 15 October 1935,[3] but Hands Across the Sea premiered on the third night, 18 October 1935.[4] A seventh play was added on the subsequent provincial tour, and the final three were added for the London run.[2] The first London performance of Hands Across the Sea was on 18 January 1936 at the Phoenix Theatre.[5]

Coward directed all ten pieces, and each starred Coward and Gertrude Lawrence. Coward said that he wrote them as "acting, singing, and dancing vehicles for Gertrude Lawrence and myself". 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.[6] Matinées were sometimes billed as Today at 2:30.

The main characters, a British couple, Commander Peter Gilpin and his wife Lady Maureen ("Piggie") Gilpin, were caricatures of Coward's friends Lord Louis ("Dickie") Mountbatten and his wife Edwina,[7] who, Coward later said, "used to give cocktail parties and people used to arrive that nobody had ever heard of and sit about and go away again; somebody Dickie had met somewhere, or somebody Edwina had met – and nobody knew who they were. We all talked among ourselves, and it was really a very very good basis for a light comedy."[8] Mountbatten, in mock indignation, called it "a bare-faced parody of our lives, with Gertie Lawrence playing Lady Maureen Gilpin and Noël Coward playing me. Absolutely outrageous...!"[8] In the introduction to his collected plays Coward states:

It is a gay, unpretentious little play, and it was acted by Gertie with incomparable brilliance. I cannot think of it without remembering the infinite variety of her inflections; her absurd scatterbrained conversations on the telephone; her frantic desire to be hospitable and charming and her expression of blank dismay when she suddenly realised that her visitors were not who she thought they were at all.[9]

The Broadway openings for the three parts took place on 24 November 1936 (including Hands Across the Sea), 27 November 1936 and 30 November 1936 at the National Theatre, again starring Coward and Lawrence. All of the plays were included except Star Chamber.[10] The London and New York runs were limited only by Coward's boredom at long engagements.[11]

Major productions of parts of the cycle were revived in 1948 and 1967 on Broadway (Hands Across the Sea was included in 1948 but omitted in 1967), 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 three of the works (not including Hands Across the Sea), 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.[12] The Antaeus Company in Los Angeles revived all ten plays in October 2007, and the Shaw Festival did so in 2009.[13][14]

Hands Across the Sea was adapted for television in 1938.[15] In 1991, BBC television mounted productions of the individual plays with Joan Collins taking the Lawrence roles. Hands Across the Sea was chosen to open the series.[16] The sheer expense involved in mounting what are effectively ten different productions has usually deterred revivals of the entire Tonight at 8:30 cycle, but the constituent plays can often be seen individually or in sets of three.

Roles and original cast[edit]


In the drawing room of the Gilpins' stylish Mayfair flat in London, Walters, the maid, takes a telephone message for her employers. The caller is Mrs. Rawlingson with whom Maureen "Piggie" Gilpin and her friend Maud Dalborough once stayed when temporarily stranded in Samolo in the South Pacific during a world cruise. On seeing the message, Piggie explains to her husband, Commander Peter Gilpin, R.N., that Mrs. Rawlingson and her husband are visiting London and, having asked them to tea, Piggie has forgotten the appointment until now (extending or accepting and then forgetting invitations is a habit of Piggie's). She makes urgent phone calls to recruit friends to join her to entertain the Rawlingsons, and Peter persuades a naval colleague to invite the visitors to tour the naval dockyard at Portsmouth during their stay.

As soon as the Gilpins leave the room, Walters ushers in Mr. and Mrs. Wadhurst, a couple whom Piggie and Maud met in Malaya. As with the Rawlingsons, Piggie has invited them to tea and then forgotten about the appointment. Another visitor is shown in: Mr. Burnham, a young employee of a company that is designing a speed boat for Peter. He and the Wadhursts make polite, slightly stiff conversation. While they wait for the Gilpins to appear, Clare Wedderburn and Bogey Gosling, close friends of the Gilpins, arrive. Clare and Bogey make themselves loudly at home and liberally hand round cocktails.

Piggie enters, greets her old friends and welcomes the Wadhursts, whom she mistakes for the Rawlingsons. Conversation is continually interrupted by the telephone on which Piggie and later Peter and Clare are called to talk to other friends, which they do uninhibitedly, to the confusion of the Wadhursts. At one point, Burnham rises and tries to give Peter a long roll of cardboard, but is thwarted when Peter is again called to the telephone. The conversation is interrupted again when Piggie takes a call from Mrs. Rawlingson, who apologises that she and her husband cannot come after all. Piggie, realising her error, tries to discover tactfully who the Wadhursts actually are. Just as they are about to leave to go to the theatre, Mrs Wadhurst mentions Pendarla, where she and Wadhurst live. This finally jogs Piggie's memory, and she bids them an effusive farewell, inviting them to dine one evening and go to the theatre. She and the Wadhursts leave the room.

Clare, like Piggie, has assumed that Burnham is the Wadhursts' son. She is puzzled when he does not leave with them. He explains who he is, and that he has brought the designs for Peter's new boat. Piggie, meanwhile, takes another telephone call and apologises to her caller for forgetting their engagement that afternoon. As Burnham creeps out, she, still unaware that he is not the Wadhursts' son, bids him goodbye: "It's been absolutely lovely, you're the sweetest family I've ever met in my life."


The Times said of the play: "As a piece of production it is, technically, of the utmost brilliance; as an entertainment, in its own kind frothily faultless.[17] Coward's fellow-dramatist Terence Rattigan considered it "the best short comedy ever written."[18]


  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 Manchester Guardian, 19 October 1935, p. 15
  5. ^ The Times 19 January 1936, p. 15.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ Lesley, p. 166.
  8. ^ a b Castle, p. 139
  9. ^ Coward, Introduction, thirteenth page
  10. ^ Hands Across the Sea 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. ^ Brantley, Ben. "How to Savor Fleeting Joys: Smiles Suave, Brows Arched", The New York Times, 28 June 2000,
  13. ^ "Noël Coward's Tonight at 8:30 series started with previews of Brief Encounters at the Shaw Festival Theatre", Shaw Festival Theatre '09
  14. ^ Belcher, David. "Brushing Up Their Coward in Canada". New York Times, 17 August 2009
  15. ^ Hands Across the Sea (1938) at the IMDB database.
  16. ^ Truss, Lynne. "Tonight at 8.30", The Times, 15 April 1991
  17. ^ The Times, 14 January 1936, p. 12
  18. ^ Hoare, p. 270