Fallen Angels – Noel Coward – Felicity Kendal – Frances de la Tour
On 5 December 2000 I saw Noel Coward’s play Fallen Angels at the Apollo Theatre. Noel Coward – known as “the Master” and for his liking for expensive silk dressing gowns which he liked to wear when writing.
The Fallen Angels of the title are played by Felicity Kendal and Frances de La Tour. Felicity Kendal is Julia Sterrol and James Woolley her husband, Fred Sterroll. Frances de La Tour is Jane Banbury and her husband is Willy Banbury played by Eric Carte. Saunders the maid is played by Tily Tremayne and the suave Frenchman played by Stephen Grief. Bill Kenwright was the producer and Michael Rudman (ex-husband of Felicity Kendal) was the Director. The music to “Meme Les Anges” was composed by Ewan Anderson. The action of the play takes place in Fred and Julia Sterroll’s flat in Mayfair in the autumn of 1935.
Fallen Angels was one of Coward’s earliest plays: written in 1923, premiered in 1925, revived in 1949 and produced in America in 1955. The latter production was the one, which Coward preferred. He said it was “hilariously funny. She (Nancy Walker) is frequently outrageous but never vulgar as Hermione Baddeley was. The play got considerably lost in the process but I recognised a few of my lines here and there. The audience rolled in the aisles and everyone was delighted”. The play’s scenario, in which two old friends nervously await the return of a mutual lover and get drunk together in the process was, according to some reports, based on a real life episode when Coward and Gladys Calthrop were both dressed up waiting for a mutual boyfriend to arrive. (It is knowledge that Coward was homosexual).
The play was nearly refused its licence as “brightly written, but extremely dubious” and that “the women’s obvious willingness to go wrong, and about their pre-nuptial going wrong, would cause too great a scandal”. But Lord Cromer passed it, with only a few dialogue changes, because he saw it as “so much unreal farcical comedy”.
In 1958 Coward returned to the play, re-writing and updating the set to 1934 and it was performed at the Vaudeville in 1967 with Constance Cummings and Joan Greenwood. The current production unites Felicity Kendal and Frances de la Tour. Kendal is forever remembered for the 1975 BBC sit-com “The Good Life” where she played Barbara Good, daffy and faithful wife to Tom (Richard Briers). A gentle tale of suburban self-sufficiency with the couple growing their own vegetables and keeping a few free-range animals which they couldn’t bear to slaughter and ended up keeping them as pets! The series ran for three years, attracting audiences of 18 million and made Kendal the nation’s sweetheart.
Frances de la Tour gave a memorable performance in “Duet for One” by Tom Kempinski (for which she gained the Olivier Award, Evening Standard and Plays and Players Awards for Best Actress). As the cellist slowly being crippled by multiple sclerosis, based on the story of Jacqueline du Pre, the celebrated cellist who died from the disease. De la Tour also repeated the role on TV for which she gained the BAFTA nomination for Best Actress.
Fallen Angels caused moral outrage when it was premiered in 1925 but today it no longer shocks. The fallen angels are youngish married women, best friends and troubled by their 12 year itch (nowadays it is the seven-year itch but marriages lasted longer in those days). Bored with their husbands and eager to reclaim their lost youth in the shape of a young Frenchman – he had very little knowledge of English but certainly had skills in the wooing department! Who had an affair with both of them before marriage. He sends a postcard to both women saying he is coming to London. They work themselves up into a drunken state of excitement in anticipation of their long-lost lover’s return; all set against a sumptuous Mayfair apartment with pale primrose walls and white pillars, tall windows and a stand-up gramophone.
Act III has a special poignancy with de la Tour looking into the mirror of her powder compact on the morning after as it were and winces like Medusa seeing herself for the first time. It is never good to go back or try to relive one’s dreams.