Noel and Gertie is a confection wherein the music, lyrics and play extracts of Noel Coward are used to illustrate the close friendship between the vastly talented author and his intermittent co-star but lifelong friend Gertrude Lawrence. In their stage heyday, they were as photographed, gossiped about and feted as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Hanging the music onto a narration is useful because while his contemporaries Cole Porter and the Gershwins, wrote sheaves of ‘girl meets boy’ songs which survive as standards, Coward’s work is more difficult to perform out of context, and modern audiences may not appreciate his themes which lament the passing of the empire or comment on English eccentricities.

Helena Blackman is every inch Miss Lawrence, capturing the hauteur, the recklessness and the insecurities as well as delivering the songs with a pitch-perfect capability Gertie herself didn’t always possess. Sail Away, written for the rasping tones of Elaine Stritch, transcends its source to become a torch song of immense beauty and delicacy.

Ben Stock is a touch too fresh-faced and eager for the langorous and louche mid-career Coward whose suave overconfidence was finely honed by his teens. However he plays the piano splendidly and paces the patter songs very well indeed: Mrs Worthington seems freshly hilarious however many times you’ve heard it.

Sheridan Morley’s 1982 dully chronological script is too politely adoring and glosses over both Coward’s romantic involvements and the racier episodes in Lawrence’s life: the army officer who declined to marry her because she was “pure Clapham”, the matinee her daughter entered her dressing room during The King and I to find a naked Yul Brynner with his head up Gertie’s hooped skirt, or the dubious allegations of a lesbian affair with Daphne duMaurier who famously said she’d rather have Gertie on a chaise-longue than in a double bed.

It’s a pity it can’t be updated, because with a bit of retrospective spice, this musically fine production might be even more enjoyable.

Photo Annabel Vere – Runs until 22nd Oct

The Public ReviewsOriginally published on The Public Reviews.