Review: A Song at Twilight at the Norwich Theatre Royal

After a run at The Theatre Royal Bath, the touring version of Noel Coward’s 1966 play A Song at Twilight has come to Norwich. 53 years after its initial run with Coward playing the lead, the play is still captivating and insightful. Opening on a detailed and impressive set of a posh hotel living room overlooking lake Geneva, the characters are presented through witty, sarcastic dialogue and humour; Hugo (Simon Callow), his wife Hilde (Jessica Turner), Felix the butler (Ash Rizi) and lastly Hugo’s ex-lover Carlotta (Jane Asher). The humorous comments throughout often come close to breaking the fourth wall inviting the audience to audibly respond to the action on stage. Engaging and funny, the first act is however filled with moments and details that appear superfluous and occasionally stagnant, despite the excellent and convincing performances.

The play and the performances really come into their own in the second act; by far the more successful of the two acts, it is however completely built off the first, such that if the first act had been any different the second would not have worked. For example to have streamlined the opening scenes would have been to remove so much of the information that initially seemed irrelevant which becomes fascinating and enlightening later on in the performance. The purpose of the play is not the plot, but an exploration and exposure of character, primarily Hugo’s.

The chemistry between the characters is amplified not least because of the power dynamics throughout. On Carlotta’s return Asher makes it clear Carlotta knows she is in control by the way she moves around the room, even removing her shoes and massaging her feet. She seems completely comfortable in Hugo’s hotel suit whilst Hugo is at his wits end; even when she sits at his feet and he towers over her in rage, she is still in complete control and holds all the power. Callow’s portrayal of Hugo’s rage and despair makes us pity him for how helpless he is whilst Carlotta exposes him. It is here that Callow begins to demonstrate the regression of age to childhood and immaturity in old age.

However the real interest is on Hilda’s drunken return; embolden by her alcohol we see a significant enhancement in Turner’s portrayal of Hilda, demanding respect and authority over Hugo. Hilda’s relationship with Carlotta is perhaps one of the most fascinating elements of act two: starting out as a companionship, Hilda quickly starts to pull on the power balance and take control of the situation, drawing the plot to a close doing what her husband could not. The most powerful moments of the play were the two silences right at the end; the first one comes before the moment of resolution, where it felt like the whole audience was holding their breath, and the second silence is one between husband and wife, filled with understanding and companionship. That quiet moment perhaps said more about their relationship than all the dialogue.

The play, whilst very successful in the large theatre would perhaps be better suited to a smaller studio in order to greater enhance the feeling of intimacy. This intimacy was also lessened by the constant changing of the lighting by the actors, which felt overdone and distracting. A more simple lighting script may have been more effective. Overall, A song at twilight was an exceptionally performed play with a fascinating subject matter.

A Song at Twilight is on at the Norwich Theatre Royal from 8-13th of April.

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March 2021
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