Robert Gorelangton

The master’s lost voice

Robert Gore-Langton talks to Roy Marsden, who is directing a ‘new’ play by Noël Coward

The master's lost voice
Text settings

There is hardly ever one of Noël Coward’s old plays not on tour or in the West End. Sometimes you think the commercial theatre would collapse without him. A ‘new’ Coward is therefore an event. Never performed or published, Volcano was written in 1956 when Coward was living permanently in Jamaica as a tax exile. The play is the result of his life out in the tropics well away from the Angry Young Men in their winklepickers who were ruling the roost back in Britain.

What a life it was! After a hard day’s snorkelling, Noël would sit outside his house, sipping a cocktail served by a white-coated native, the sun setting over the Caribbean, no cheap airline tourists to pollute his coral-fringed paradise.

On the page Coward’s lost play exudes heat, sexual intrigue and the chink of ice in long drinks. The show is directed by the actor Roy Marsden (who played P.D. James’s Commander Adam Dalgliesh on TV), something of a patron saint of theatrical lost causes, who first came across the piece when it flopped on to his doormat some years back.

‘Graham Payn, who was Coward’s lover, sent it to me. I looked at this yellowing script typed on old imperial foolscap and thought this is a very odd piece of writing. Then I read it more and thought, “Mmmm… this is very good.” It’s set on Coward’s make-believe Pacific island, Samola. I thought this would be very interesting if we could just get rid of the native characters who talk in a sort of embarrassing bwana-speak, the most dated aspect of the piece.’

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, of course. But the quality of the gossip that inspired Volcano is top-notch. Coward lived on the coast at Firefly and his chum and neighbour was Ian Fleming, who wintered on the island, knocking out Bond novels at his nearby house Goldeneye, named after one of his wartime operations. Coward called his clinic-like home ‘Goldeneye, nose and throat’.

It was there in 1952 that Fleming and Ann Rothermere were finally married after a long but intermittent affair. Coward was one of the witnesses. Living between Coward and the Flemings was Blanche Blackwell, whose family went back generations on the island and who sold Coward the land for his property. She had divorced the Crosse & Blackwell heir Joseph Blackwell and took a shine to the Bond author. ‘One morning I got on my horse and rode over to Noël’s house,’ she recalls. ‘I said: “Noël, I know what you think and it isn’t true.”’ It became true soon enough and the subsequent events inspired the play.

‘Fleming,’ says Marsden, ‘was an old roué and had this passionate affair with Blanche. Coward watched all this going on and thought, “There’s a drama.” Volcano is about the fag end of British colonialism and the massive insecurity of these people who spend the whole play talking about fidelity, love and lust. When I read it now I don’t see anything particularly upsetting about it. Those sex figures, like Guy in the play, when they walk into a room, everyone turns to watch them. That’s apparently what Fleming was like. He had an incredible aura. The whole play dances around him. Not that Mr and Mrs Farnsbarn watching the play in Crewe need to know any of that background to enjoy it.’

One of the reasons it never got staged is that the West End producer Binkie Beaumont didn’t think it worked. According to Marsden, ‘He read the play and said, “Darling, there’s no laughter.” Faced with that tepid response, he let it slip away and moved on to other things. Volcano isn’t Coward’s greatest play by any means but I do think it says a great deal about him at a particular moment in his life. It’s quite reflective, and I have tried to direct it as a very naturalistic play rather than a heightened play like Hay Fever.’

Another reason for its then unpopularity was its buried theme of homosexuality. In the play Guy has a complicated past involving another chap. ‘Coward, of course, fancied Fleming like mad. Coward himself never admitted to being homosexual — he always said there were still one or two widows left in Worthing who didn’t know. Binkie never admitted to his sexuality. He had this very close relationship with Lord Reith and that community and they all saw themselves as inviolable. Nobody today gives a fart about anyone’s sexuality — it’s the lying people don’t like. But gay men back then tended to get married and have children, and then spent a lot of time, miserably, in dingy clubs in the arse end of Ebury Street. That’s what it was like.’

Fleming — who was notoriously sadistic towards women — had form: his other affairs included Loelia Westminster — wife of the duke; and the writer Rosamond Lehmann. Philip Hoare, Coward’s biographer, reckons the play with its foetid hothouse atmosphere is a metaphor for the dying postwar world. It’s appropriate that the washed-up Anthony Eden chose to rent Goldeneye after the Suez disaster to recuperate. A few years later, Coward’s beloved Jamaica ceased being a British possession.

So what does the Volcano of the title refer to? Hoare thinks the volcano might be the wrath of Fleming’s wife Ann, who appears as the tricky Melissa in the play. But, if so, what had she got to fume about? She was, after all, leaping in and out of bed with the married Hugh Gaitskell. By bizarre coincidence, Ann Fleming and Gaitskell loom large in a recent play about the Suez crisis, A Marvellous Year for Plums, at Chichester; 1956 seems to have been a vintage year for flings.

Fleming is said to have turned Blanche Blackwell into the Bond girl Pussy Galore. Blanche is now 100 years old and remembers Fleming, who died in 1964 aged 56, with great affection. Her son Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, Bob Marley’s label, can be seen as a young man dancing in a nightclub in Dr No, shot in Jamaica.

Having failed to interest Katharine Hepburn in the play, Coward gave up and went to Las Vegas to become a cabaret rival to Elvis. He died in 1973. Volcano, his missing play, has remained stubbornly dormant until now. In a nod to Coward’s play Present Laughter, the actors in Volcano have nicknamed it Present Lava.

Volcano, with Jenny Seagrove, Jason Durr and Finty Williams, is at the Theatre Royal, Bath until 16 June; at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge from 18 June to 23 June; and then on tour until 11 August.