Noel and Gertie: the ultimate celebrities
- Credit: Archant
Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence were two of the biggest stars in Britain. Arts editor Andrew Clarke speaks to the team bringing their artistic love affair back on stage
Noel Coward aka The Master was one of the nation’s great polymaths – writer, actor, director, musician, film-maker – it seems there was nothing he couldn’t turn his hand to.
But, even a polymath such as Coward needs inspiration and, for Noel, friend and actress Gertrude Lawrence was his muse.
Known as Gertie, Lawrence was a demanding diva, who let theatre folk know who was the star of the show but in the eyes of Coward she was a towering talent and he wrote many of his most famous works for her to star in.
Author and theatre critic Sheridan Morley, son of actor Robert Morley, knew Coward and set about creating a show that would celebrate not only the great shows they were in together but their astonishing 54 year friendship.
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The script for the show has been mined from the couple’s letters and diaries and captures the loving, witty and often sparky nature of their relationship. This is augmented with songs and scenes from such hit shows as Privates Lives and Blithe Spirit.
Coward’s entertainments drew huge crowds for decades and garnered rave reviews from even the most curmudgeonly critics, prompting The Master to say on one occasion: “I love criticism just so long as it’s unqualified praise.”
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For producer Matthew Townshend the show provides a welcome trip down memory lane. He said: “I first encounter it 20 years ago when I directed it at Eye Theatre in Suffolk and I loved it. It’s a really clever little piece which weaves the letters and diaries together and are then illustrated by extracts from the shows – so you get this wonderful portrait of this terribly glamorous couple.”
Matthew says that the power of the piece comes from the fact that the audience learns that the pair first met when they were both child actors. “Coward is spellbound from the beginning, even though he was quite famously gay, he was bewitched by Gertie and Sheridan Morley has used Coward’s letters and diaries to allow us to see Lawrence through his eyes. He wants to know what makes a star, a star.”
Even in today’s celebrity-driven culture it’s difficult to imagine the scale of their popularity. Matthew says: “Even with X Factor and The Voice, The Oscars and Olivier’s, we think we know celebrity but that’s nothing to fame in those days because they didn’t have to compete with the noise of everything else. There was the stage, there was film and there was radio and that was that. In fact radio and the stage often overlapped. There were no pop stars no people who were famous being famous. Noel and Gertie were forces of nature, almost mythical people living wildly glamorous lives in the West End – or that’s how they were portrayed and this has sustained their celebrity for almost a century now.”
Noel and Gertie, by Sheridan Morley, is at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, on April 11-12.
Keeping it Real
For actors Ben Stock and Helen Power playing iconic figures Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence comes with more than a little trepidation but they have learnt by playing them as real people rather than clichéd impersonations then the fears of the play not being taken seriously fall away.
Ben says: “You can’t afford to do the stereotypical Noel Coward impression. You have to capture the spirit of the man rather than trying to do an impersonation. As with most acting roles the answer to most questions lie in the script. Coward was such a witty writer and had such a natural talent for using words that by simply delivering his dialogue or speaking lines from his letters and diaries that you automatically start to sound like him.”
For Helen, playing Gertie Lawrence, she felt that her job was slightly easier. “While everyone can conjure up an image of Noel Coward, thankfully for me today Gertrude Lawrence is less recognisable. Everyone knows what Coward sounds like but the same isn’t true for Lawrence. Most of her career was spent on stage. She only did about two or three films and they are either lost or terrible so are never seen.
“So what I have been able to is explore her as a person, as a character and that has been fun. I’ve also got a huge appreciation of Coward as a songwriter. He was a hugely gifted man and was inspired to provide Gertie with some wonderful material.”