Review: A Song at Twilight

Madeleine Olver 5 March 2019
Image Credit: A Song at Twilight via Cambridge Arts Theatre

★★★★

A Song at Twilight is the final part of Suite in Three Keys (1966), and Noël Coward’s last work. It’s unsurprising then that its tone is even more reflective than is usual for Coward, and while based on the biographies of Somerset Maugham and Max Beerbohm, the play also felt distinctly autobiographical. It is not only Hugo Latymer’s author that has personal connections to him but also his actor, Callow, having also lived as a queer man at the time that the play is set (the 1960s)*.

Regardless of whether he drew on this private understanding of his character’s background, Callow portrayed an extremely convincing Latymer. Although clearly a little nervous at the play’s opening, he soon warmed up, and what struck me most was his excellent ability to control pace, using the text’s natural builds and pauses for maximum dramatic effect. This is particularly important in a play like A Song at Twilight where the entirety is set in one room; if lines were not paced well then there might be a feeling of stagnation.

Stephen Unwin, the director, clearly worked hard with the cast to keep the performance flowing – even by such simple means as an actress moving from one chair to another. While this could have felt awkward or perfunctory, these subtle movements were placed well in the script and felt perfectly in harmony with the characters’ shifts in mood. The production’s aesthetic elements, such as the gorgeously detailed costumes, were also key to keeping the audience fully engaged. Ash Rizi was a natural part of this meticulously created world and made his supporting role integral to the successful Naturalism of the play.

It was fun to see the other three actors bouncing off each other’s energies, particularly at the end of the play. Jessica Turner delivered an extremely sensitive performance; in particular, she worked magic with Hilde’s monologue about being content as a kind of heterosexual ‘camouflage’ for her husband. This speech was so electrically charged that I could hardly take my eyes off the stage. Apart from having a good command of the audience, Turner also sustained a persuasive German accent throughout. While I can see why Jane Asher, as Carlotta, made the choices that she did, I was personally a little unconvinced by them; notably she had a line about miscarriage that was practically thrown away. While this may have been in keeping with Asher’s reading of her character, I felt it was perhaps lacking in nuance, as well as the sentimentality that Latymer frequently accuses Carlotta of having.

Unwin describes in the programme how A Song at Twilight is relevant today because of its insistence ‘on the sanctity of the private sphere, and a recognition of the inevitable contradictions of the human spirit’. I would add that this makes it relevant to a wide age range – I was one of just two identifiable students in the audience, but I believe many others would enjoy watching the performance. While it lacked much variety and wasn’t particularly experimental, it did extremely well at what it was aiming to do: keep its audience engaged, laughing, and reflecting on the human heart. Whether making me question 1960s views on homosexuality, or the nature of reputation – or making me laugh with fantastic lines about ‘youth’ being ‘grubby’ and ‘noisy’ – A Song at Twilight kept me thoroughly entertained.

*https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/27/simon-callow-my-life-lived-gaily

Tickets for A Song at Twilight (4th – 9th March 2019) are available here: https://www.cambridgeartstheatre.com/show-performances?show=281