Noel Coward’s Ace of Clubs – Southwark’s Union Theatre.
Noel Coward wrote of his musical Ace of Clubs that “the idea is to do it as simply as humanly possible”. Responding to his producers’ concerns that a budget would not be found, his diary entry declared that he wanted a small theatre, with an intimate atmosphere. “The more intimate the production is, the more clearly the story and lyrics will be heard.”
In the event, someone conjured up the cash and the original 1950 production was lavishly staged.
But for the first professional London revival since, Southwark’s Union Theatre draws on its decade of experience of producing loveable, low-budget musicals and takes Coward at his word.
The result is a tiny orchestra, a very short chorus line, a few wobbly notes – and that the audience, packed in club-style around circular tables, is ready to forgive the whole-hearted cast almost anything.
It’s not up there with the Union Theatre’s version of Cabaret or its all-male Gilbert and Sullivan productions that have toured widely, but for Coward aficionados, it’s a precious chance to appreciate some of his best-known standards –Three Juvenile Delinquents, I like America, Josephine – in an authentic context.
Star – or Ace – of the show is Emma Harris as Pinkie Leroy. After a too-dulcet beginning, she takes us by storm with a suddenly powerful voice to kick off the melodramatic plot.
Gary Wood as Harry Hornby, an extremely polite sailor from Guildford, is rather light-weight to be an exciting suitor, but whatever he lacks as an actor and singer, he makes up for in tap-dancing and acrobatic prowess.
Pinkie and Harry’s genteel vowels are countered by the East End accents of “Smiling” Joe Snyder (John Game) and his gang. Their crimes are small-time and the characters hackneyed and yet Jack Thorpe-Baker’s brisk direction generates genuine tension as the skullduggery creaks along in the wings and Coward’s witty lyrics ring out just as clearly as he wished from a diminutive centre stage.
The other big contrast to Pinkie and Harry’s young romance is in the worn-out love affair between the real boss of the Ace of Clubs Rita Marbury (Kate Milner-Evans) and the nominal head Benny Lucas (Patrick Neyman). Again, the chemistry is less than compelling and yet again we’re minded to forgive the brittle make-believe as they forgive each other as part of the feel-good musical fun.
Barbara Lewis © 2014.
Ace of Clubs,
Author: Noel Coward,
Union Theatre, London.
Director: Jack Thorpe-Baker
Producer: Union Theatre
Cast includes: Emma Harris, Gary Wood, Kate Milner-Evans, Patrick Neyman, Lucy May Barker, Michael Hobbs, John Game
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes, including interval
Dates of run: May 7-31