Shadow Play (play)

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Gertrude Lawrence and Noël Coward in the original production of Shadow Play

Shadow Play 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. 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 has been adapted for television. At its premières in Manchester and London, Shadow Play was played on the same evening as Fumed Oak and Hands Across the Sea. Like all the other plays in the cycle it originally starred Gertrude Lawrence and Coward himself.[2]


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 Manchester Opera House beginning on 15 October 1935.[3] Shadow Play premiered on the third night, 18 October 1935.[4] A seventh play, Family Album, was added on the subsequent provincial tour. The final three were added during 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.[5] Matinées were sometimes billed as Today at 2:30.

The first London performance was on 18 January 1936 at the Phoenix Theatre.[6] 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".[7] Four of the plays in the cycle "break into spontaneous song... in the most unexpected places".[8] Coward's song, "You Were There" is central to the play. The Manchester Guardian called the play "warmed with human feeling", though doubting the durability of the couple's reconciliation.[9]

The Broadway openings for the three parts took place on 24 November 1936, 27 November 1936 (including Shadow Play) and 30 November 1936 at the National Theatre, again starring Coward and Lawrence. Star Chamber was not included.[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 (Shadow Play 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 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 in 2009 the Shaw Festival also did so.[12]

In 1954, Otto Preminger directed a Producers' Showcase television production of Shadow Play, Still Life and Red Peppers (featuring Martyn Green and Ginger Rogers).[13] In 1991, BBC television mounted productions of the individual plays with Joan Collins taking the Lawrence roles.[14] 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]


Simon Gayforth asks his wife Victoria for a divorce. She takes an overdose of pills. Through the theatrical device of a shadow play, they remember fondly the days of their first meeting and falling in love. Their love is rekindled, and they reconcile.


The Observer noted, "A neat production, coupled with one first-rate song, 'You Were There,' whose tune is one of the best in the tender line that Mr Coward has ever given us, carries this fantasy with a dancing motion past the banalities on which it might easily stumble." The drama critic Kenneth Tynan later asserted that Coward's "Small talk, small talk with other thoughts going on behind" in this play and others were an influence on Harold Pinter.[15]

Coward later wrote of his score for the play: "At the end of the first scene of the play we belted out "Play, Orchestra, Play" in the teeth of the audience while the stage staff was changing the scene behind us. "You Were There" we sang and danced more tranquilly in a moonlit garden. It was reprised by me later in the show while Gertie was scrambling breathlessly into a grey bouffant dress in the quick-change room at the side of the stage. It is a pleasant, sentimental little song and we both enjoyed doing it."[16]


  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 October1935, p. 15
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ The Times, 19 January 1936, p. 15.
  7. ^ Coward, unnumbered introductory page
  8. ^ a b Brantley, Ben. "How to Savor Fleeting Joys: Smiles Suave, Brows Arched", The New York Times, 28 June 2000,
  9. ^ The Manchester Guardian, 19 October 1935, p. 15
  10. ^ Shadow Play 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. ^ "Producers' Showcase", Tonight at 8:30 (1954) at the IMDB database
  14. ^ Truss, Lynne. "Tonight at 8.30", The Times, 15 April 1991
  15. ^ Hoare, p. 269
  16. ^ Programme note for Cowardy Custard (1972) quoting The Noël Coward Song Book