This group of students from Oxford’s Trinity College presumably came to the conclusion that you can’t go far wrong with Noel Coward. And they were right. This is a charming and satisfying production that won’t have you on your feet at the end, but may well delight your grandmother.
Taken from Coward’s collection of short plays in the show’s title, Hands Across the Sea and Fumed Oak provide light and surprisingly vicious half-hours of comedy respectively. The first, in which the whole nine-strong ensemble is involved, is a comedy of manners that the cast seem to be treating with the indifference it deserves. It rolls along nicely, but there is not much here for the actors, nor the audience, to latch onto and the few opportunities they get are usually spurned by timing that was slightly – and inexcusably when performing Coward – off. There is also a tendency to focus too much on the central action, such as it is, rather than exploit the reactions of the large cast who are too often extra audience members. The acting is credible, though, and just the right side of hammy; Lucy Rands is particularly excellent as the preposterous Clare.
Rands then undergoes an impressive character shift to play Dorris, the uptight and insufferable wife and mother, in Fumed Oak. Here, the cast is reduced to four and, as a result, the performance is much tighter, wittier, and more engaging. Howard Coase as the long-suffering Henry far outshines his earlier performance and is the undisputed star of the whole show with a perfectly constructed, increasingly explosive display. The plot is more tangible – and more serious – and the cast look a lot more comfortable.
Comfortable is the operative emotion here. There is nothing new about Trinity’s interpretation, but there is no need to try to be clever. They were playing to a full house on their second ‘night’ (at 11am) and the audience got what they were hoping for. Solid and predictable, this was a very enjoyable start to the day.