Home Chat is a frisky Noël Coward comedy and the first post-lockdown production for the Genesian Theatre. Arts editor Rita Bratovich went to opening night for a glass of bubbly and some witty repartee.
Home Chat was first produced in 1927, during a time when social restraints were easing and boundaries of behaviour were being redrawn; the generation gap was a chasm and there was a clash between old and new world etiquettes. It’s the perfect milieu for the deliciously wry humour and knot-filled plots so typical of Coward’s work.
The play is set in London. The action begins in the sitting room of Paul Ebony (Kendall Drury), a gangly, bespectacled, slightly awkward young man. With him is Mavis Wittersham (Ruba El-kaddoumi), a good friend with more than friendly interest in his affairs. They are soon joined by Paul’s mother, Mrs Ebony (Lois Marsh) and his mother-in-law, Mrs Chillham (Jenny Jacobs), who enter separately and unexpectedly but both with a barely contained sense of anxiety.
We quickly learn that Paul’s wife, Janet (Abbie Love), who was returning from a short holiday in France that morning, has been involved in a train crash. She is perfectly fine, physically, but her reputation may be in ruins. It’s been reported in the papers that she was sharing a sleeping compartment with a male companion – her good friend, Peter Chelsworth (Cameron Hutt).
Mrs Ebony and Mavis are keen to fan flames of suspicion, while Paul dutifully stands by his wife and Mr Chillham indignantly defends her daughter. The self-righteous antipathy between the two mothers is a standing gag that lends itself to some very funny barbs throughout the play.
The besmirched pair, Peter and Janet, finally arrive home, blissfully unaware of the rumours until the sombre mood in the room and loaded comments make them twig. To further complicate things, Peter’s betrothed, Lavinia (Scarlet Hunter), has also heard the gossip and arrives to tell him it’s over between them.
Insulted and annoyed by the unfounded accusations, Janet and Peter decide to teach everyone a lesson by pretending the rumours are true. It’s an ill-conceived plan. Or is it? There’s enough scope to read between the witty lines and find possible ulterior motives or at the very least, ambiguity.
All the performers are well suited to their roles with Love as the brash, rambunctious Janet a particular stand-out. Coward uses the character of Janet to explore ideals of female independence and sexuality. When Major Alec Stone (Peter David Allison) appears later in the plot, Janet is openly flirtatious. Interestingly, Janet’s mother not only tolerates but virtually endorses Janet’s free-spirited ways.
Final cast mention to Robert Green who plays the dual roles of butlers Pallet and Turner, differentiated by a wig.
Beautiful costumes, great sets with some very clever switches, and a wonderful night of good old-fashioned theatre.
Home Chat is playing at The Genesian Theatre, 420 Kent St, Sydney at 7.30pm Fridays and Saturdays, and 4.30pm Sundays until 12 December, 2021. For information and bookings, visit www.genesiantheatre.com.au.
Rita Bratovich is the arts and entertainment editor of the Sydney Sentinel.
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