Review by Katie Allen
Written by Noël Coward. Directed by Barry Nielsen.
The Genesian Theatre’s production of Home Chat by NoëlCoward opened in Sydney on the weekend to a sold-out audience, all eager to get back to the theatre.
As the play begins we meet Paul (played by Kendall Drury) and his friend Mavis Wittersham awaiting for the home coming of his wife, Janet (played by Abbie Love). As both Paul’s mother (played by Lois Marsh) and mother-in-law (played by Jenny Jacobs) enter the scene, he is informed of the sudden news by the ladies. The train that his wife and her male companion were on has had a terrible accident and it is all over the news. They were luckily unhurt but the sleeping arrangements on the train between the platonic friends leads to rumours and scandalous assumptions. Janet had shared her sleeping car with Peter (played by Cameron Hutt) and everyone assumes the worst. In their boredom and cruelty, the accused pair decide to have fun with everyone’s assumptions and play up that they are, in fact, having a lustful affair. This goes better than planned when both Janet’s mother and mother-in-law show up at Peter’s house to find Janet in her sexy sleepwear after spending the night at Peter’s house.
Part period play, part soap opera, part comedy, Home Chat is a critique of the stuffy, uptight morals of the time; the rules around gender, relationships, and female behaviour as well as the scandalous assumptions that can result from men and women in platonic relationships. It is a short, punchy play with a deft, gentle wit and a playful commentary of the times the writer found himself in.
It seems strange that while this play was written in the ‘20s, this production is its Australian premiere. It was a play that essentially disappeared for many years. Its themes of female empowerment and a rather casual view of marriage were quite confronting for a 1920’s audience. The writing playfully trivialises romantic relationships and the shifting nature of love and attachment and takes a very cynical view of marriage.
The direction by Barry Neilsen and assistant director Noemie Jounot was simple, genuine and the perfect way to weave the threads of this story together. Technically, the production was slick with lighting design by Ian Whalan and sound design by Michael Schell. Home Chat featured brilliant set design by Tom Fahy and costumes that were lovingly and thoughtfully created by Susan Carveth to reflect the era of the production. This production exhibited a wonderful attention to detail in all aspects.
After a slow, awkward start, the play really picks up the pace when Mrs Chillham enters the scene and the humour within the writing begins to reveal itself. The transitions between scenes were carried out smoothly and humbly by the cast while the audience was entertained by Robert Green as the butler (Pallet/ Turner) and his beautiful singing.
At our time in history, when fun and freedom have been taken from us due to lockdowns and restrictions, this play may finally find its place in a new social context.
Abbie Love was wonderful as Janet Ebony, a role that would have been very unlikeable in the wrong actor’s hands. She played her complicated and contradictory character as delightfully alive, quick-witted with a strong sense of fun and freedom. As Peter, Cameron Hutt finely played the role of the charming cad. The chemistry between Janet (Abbie Love) and Peter was brilliantly portrayed by the actors as a friendship, not a sexual relationship. The easiness and natural humour of their friendship was obvious and allowed the audience to understand very clearly that these two are close, dear friends and not lovers.
Jenny Jacobs captured many of the laughs as Janet’s mother, Mrs Chillham. Working alongside Jacobs was Lois Marsh playing Mrs Ebony, who did well at representing the prudish and judgemental older generational character in Coward’s work. These two actors bounced off each other in a way that was hilariously ridiculous.
Within the production, Ruba El-Kaddoumi played Mavis Wittersham with a hopeless love for her friend Paul, her character was both seen and played well to the writing, which saw her used to blending into the background.
As Paul Ebony, Kendall Drury portrayed an uptight writer with a constant air of worry surrounding the possibility of his wife having an affair.
Two characters serving to complicate the already complicated relationships were Scarlett Hunter as the broken-hearted fiancé Lavinia Hardy, and Alec Stone brilliantly played by Peter David Allison.
When Janet’s mother-in-law asks her, “What is your objective in all this?” she answers, “Freedom.” This really is the major theme of the play. At a time in history, when fun and freedom have been taken from us due to lockdowns and restrictions, this play may finally find its place in a new social context.
Home Chat is now playing at the Genesian Theatre until 12th December.
Director Barry Nielsen
Assistant Director Noemie Jounot
Set Design Tom Fahy
Costume Design Susan Carveth
Lighting Design Ian Whalan
Sound Design Michael Schell
Stage Manager Alexis Worthing
Lighting and Sound Operation Molly Smith
Pallet – Turner Robert Green
Mavis Wittersham – Ruba El-Kaddoumi
Paul Ebony – Kendall Drury
Mrs Chillham – Jenny Jacobs
Mrs Ebony – Lois Marsh
Lavinia Hardy – Scarlet Hunter
Janet Ebony – Abbie Love
Peter Chelsworth – Cameron Hutt
Alec Stone – Peter David Allison
About the author
Katie Allen is a writer, actor, voice artist and theatre-lover from Wollongong. She studied writing and journalism as part of her BA from Southern Cross University and she is immersed in the local community theatre scene.