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Review: Noel & Gertie - The Cockpit, London


 The Cockpit started off as an experimental space for live events back in the 1960s. Hidden away between Marylebone and Regents Park, the iconic functionalist building has become a hub for innovative young companies. ‘Noel and Gertie’ is brought to us by the same creative team responsible for the critically acclaimed production of ‘Parade’ and is led once again by award winning director Thom Southerland

The play explores the relationship between the famous playwright Noel Coward and the actress Gertrude Lawrence.  Crafted from the various letters, diaries and telegrams shared between the two performers it shifts between brief monologues, excerpts from their work together and musical numbers. Sheridan Morley (writer) notes, “They were the first of the beautiful people” only rivalled by the likes of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Ben Stock (Noel) and Helena Blackman (Gertie) breathe life into the iconic relationship. The script is witty and clearly makes use of Coward’s original monologues and diary excerpts. They seem to bounce off each other well and Blackman is particularly brilliant at dropping Gertie’s zinging one-liners. Both roles are very demanding for the young actors and there are many musical numbers, particularly solos for Gertie, which Blackman holds beautifully.

The set design is minimal and unchanging but seems to work well, although there is an obsession with moving chairs around the stage at a dizzying speed. The sound design however, whilst well thought out, is infuriatingly poor in quality. There is no room for a live piano or band so the actors must take their cues from pre-recorded samples. However, they are often cut short, or without a fade so that the sound simply stops dead. This does seem to lose part of the atmosphere as, for example, when they are at the train station a large whistle is heard but is cut before the sound has had a chance to fade out.  It is disappointing that a bit more thought has not gone into this area as it distracts from what is otherwise a good performance.

While there will be limited appeal for those interested in Coward and Lawrence’s relationship, you have to admire the hard work gone into keeping their memory alive.  There is also something very charming and humble about the script. You get the feeling that Hollywood would turn it into something it is not – longing looks over a romance that could never be, overdoing the sitcom comedy relationship and focusing on dark intense jealousy. Instead it stays faithful to their true story – exploring the deep love between two people who remain connected forever no matter where they are. 

Noel & Gertie plays at The Cockpit until Sat 22nd Oct

Review by Melissa Phillips

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