In Coward country

A Noël Coward revival in the West End hits some high notes

Kim Cattrall and Matthew Macfadyen pair up as Amanda and Elyot, the lovers who love and hate each other in equal measure, in Noël Coward's Private Lives at the Vaudeville Theatre in London. Undoubtedly the screen stars were there to lure the punters, but it is a testament to the skill of these performers that they shake free of past roles that could have dogged him and her off the telly.

Cattrall, more sassy than sexy, flows around the stage like quicksilver, and is attuned to the changes of gear and rhythm in Coward's text. In marked contrast stands Macfadyen, who is all unyielding bulk, with tiny touches -- a twitching right hand, for instance -- revealing stress and tension, and some fabulously camp and bitchy topnotes to his vocal range. Strangely satisfying to see a big man squeak. Their bodies artfully calibrate and lock together, or strike symmetrical attitudes, to point up their need for one another.

This in contrast to their physical dealings with their respective spouses: Lisa Dillon, as the unfortunate Sybil, forces intimacy with her reluctant husband, wrapping and patting him, lacing herself under his arm. Simon Paisley Day plays Victor with a buttoned-down, welded stiffness that makes his eventual undoing all the funnier.

The curtain opens on a conventional enough balcony scene, where the divorced old flames discover that they are honeymooning in adjacent rooms. Rob Howell's set in act two appears to offer us a drawing room that we have seen a hundred times before, on a hundred stages, with a depressing degree of specificity, down to the very gewgaws on the grand piano. But all is not quite as it seems. For starters, it looks as if Dalì has had a hand in the decor; and secondly, without this proliferation of objects, we would be denied the undoubted pleasure of watching them all being smashed up during Cattrall and Macfayden's spectacular fight. One particularly delicious moment has the nicely apt goldfish bowls being cracked open by a pole-wielding Amanda, their contents arcing out spectacularly.

It's now hard to believe that the Lord Chamberlain took issue with the whole of this second act, focusing as it does on unmarried post-coital bickering. Which highlights the questionable continuing relevance of what cynics might argue is a dated, cash-cow of a comedy. The age of glamour and leisure evoked by the play, of foreign travel where one experiences "barbaric" customs, of the upper-class mindset in which servants are, apparently, amusing -- doubly amusing if they're foreign -- this is all surely as dead as the 1930s accents that the cast fields.

Or so I thought, until I tuned into the conversation of two redoubtable women behind me, and their first-class liner down the Suez, their dislike of cruises ("All they do is queue for food"), Ladies Day at Ascot -- and wasn't Chelsea getting ghastly? Coward country just about lives on.

It is interesting to speculate that just as we are outsiders to this scene, so indeed was Coward -- as a gay man from a relatively poor background -- and perhaps this accounts for the acidity of his observations. Maybe it's why the dialogue still sounds fresh and funny. In the director Richard Eyre's hands this production does allow a breeze of modernity to blow the dust off Coward's glittering surfaces: there's more than a touch of ironic retrospect to Simon Paisley Day's diction as he elongates the 1930s vowels into "orf" and "gorn". And the set, with its hints of the surreal, similarly reviews the era.

The 2010 lens is not screwed in too tightly: Eyre could have presented a darker, more disturbing Coward; after all, domestic violence and misogyny are rarely laughing matters. Elyot does have some vicious lines: "I should like to cut off your head with a meat axe," among others. But the tone is played syllabub light. We no more care about the protagonists' pain than Punch and Judy's. Perhaps this insistence on the superficial and the trivial is a key to the play's continuing success. A carpe diem championing of flippancy in the face of adversity seems to weather well: "Come and kiss me darling, before your body rots and worms pop in and out of your eye sockets."

Coward wrote this play to show off his acting talents and those of Gertrude Lawrence, and as such it is something of a gift for performers. The current cast, flippant to the end, extract delirious comedy among the coffee cups, the sugar and the brioches.

"Private Lives" runs at the Vaudeville Theatre, London WC2

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Only Drake could wow the O2 by pointing out random audience members' clothing

It takes charisma to pull off abandoning hits halfway through.

On the last London night of his Boy Meets World tour (20 March), Drake doesn’t come on stage until 10pm, which is enough to kill off most gigs at the O2 Arena (hello, Bieber), as people are worried about getting the Tube home. The amount of rum and Coke in the room – a steaming, unrecognisable space with a false ceiling of globular lights and a stampeding crowd split in half by a fence – certainly helps keep the buzz. But who’d have thought that a man standing onstage diligently pointing at audience members and saying what they’re wearing (“You in the blue dress shirt with the ­lager!”) would constitute one of the most exciting nights the O2 has seen in a while?

“Tonight is not a show, not a concert, not about me,” says Drake, who runs an annual “Drake Night” in Toronto and once visited Drake University in Iowa.

So far, the world’s favourite rapper – his latest album, More Life, recently got 90 million streams on its first day of release on Apple Music alone – has had a shifting identity. His songs capture a new strain of emotionally literate but solipsistic hip-hop, which can feel intense or whiny depending on how you look at it. His offstage behaviour is Type-A rapper – he has been accused of throwing beer bottles at Chris Brown, he has been punched by Diddy and he has had altercations with Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T and Ludacris.

But Aubrey Drake Graham, the son of a white, Jewish mother and an African-American father who once played drums alongside Jerry Lee Lewis, does skits about his petulance on Saturday Night Live (see “Drake’s Beef”). Emotionally demonstrative, openly dysfunctional, a bit of a bruiser, with an ability to flit between a dozen styles of music while expressing a desire for crowd participation that borders on the needy . . . Could this man be the ­Michael Bublé of hip-hop?

Drake’s sprawling two-hour roadshow is held back from chaos by the force of his physical presence. Blunt-headed with muscular, sloping shoulders and mesmerising, nimble feet, he prowls the edge of the stage. He has had so many hits (and has so many guest stars tonight) that he is not interested in playing them all the way through. Instead, recalling Prince in the same venue ten years ago, the show becomes a series of medleys. With just a drummer and a synth player at the back of the stage, he demonstrates an invisible, physical control over the music, operating it like a string puppet, stopping or starting songs with the drop of a foot or the shrug of a shoulder, so they collapse in the middle and are gone.

It takes charisma to pull off abandoning hits halfway through. Pointing at people in the audience, real or imaginary, is a music hall thing. Bruce Dickinson and Metallica’s James Hetfield do it too. Amid a hokey message to follow your dreams, he recalls his time spent singing for $200 a night as a John Legend tribute act. Cue a perfect demonstration of Legend-style singing – before he suddenly sloughs off “all this bathrobe-and-candle-sexy acoustic Ed Sheeran shit”, while huge columns of flame engulf the stage.

Drake is still at his best with blue, slinky songs of alienation – “9”, “Over”, “Feel No Ways” and “Hotline Bling”, which doubles up as make-out music for the couples in the crowd. One pair of lovers, Drake establishes during one of his crowd surveys, have been together for ten years. “I can’t even make a relationship last ten days,” he laments. In 2012, he told the Guardian, “I’ve had too many girls to ever feel uncomfortable about the man that I am.” An old-school boast from a modern man.

The guest stars serve to highlight Drake’s variety, rather than shine on their own. Their songs, too, are started, suspended, chopped and screwed. Drake is more macho when there’s another guy onstage with him – doing “Successful”, with the literally named Trey Songz, or dueling with thefrenetic Skepta, who sounds so much tougher (maybe because he’s a Londoner). The two whirl around the stage like helicopter seeds.

Nicki Minaj, apparently Drake’s one-time lover, rises fembotishly from a hole in the stage and says in a London accent, “I want some fucking crumpets and tea.”

She adds, of her host, “This nigga single-handedly changed the game.” Minaj sings her song “Moment 4 Life”: “I call the shots, I am the umpire . . .” But she doesn’t really. Even her presence flares up quickly and is gone.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution