Thursday, December 5, 2019



Waiting in the Wings by Noël Coward.

Directed by Stephen Pike. Performing at The Q November 20 – 23 2019 and Canberra Rep’s Theatre 3 from November 27 – December 7 2019.  A Canberra Rep production in collaboration with the Q Theatre and the Queanbeyan-Palerang Council. Bookings; 6257 1950.

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

Liz Bradley as May Davenport in Waiting in the Wings
Sir Noel Coward claimed when asked what he considered to be his gift to the British stage, he replied “A talent to amuse.” The same could be said of Canberra Repertory’s end of year entertainment, Noël Coward’s genteel comedy, Waiting in the Wings, directed by Stephen Pike and featuring a stellar cast of Canberra’s finest more mature actresses. After a short break the Rep season at Theatre 3 was rather slow to warm up on Wednesday night. As Laurence Olivier, the great knight of the British Theatre, once wrote “Never use the performance as a warm up.” Gradually the beautifully played and sensitively directed production swept me up in its charm. Coward’s play, masterly handled by Pike’s excellent cast, does far more than amuse. It is a heart-warming account of the fading years, set in The Wings, a charity home for retired actresses, once the glorious toasts of the London stage and now living out their twilight years with past friends and rivals of the theatrical art.
Liz At Clair Long as Deirdre O’Malley and
Peter Holland as Perry Lascoe in Waiting in the Wings.
Photo by Ross Gould

Written in 1959 and first staged the following year when Coward himself was approaching his more venerable years, Waiting in the Wings forsakes the biting satire of the youthful impetuosity of Private Lives or Blithe Spirit for the more sober observation and empathy for the advancing effects of old age. Coward’s wit still sparkles and strikes a chord with anyone who is experiencing the onset of the twilight years or has elderly relations whose lives have begun to spend their force. The Master still constructs a splendidly crafted plot which affords the actors wonderful opportunities to fashion eccentric, volatile, quirky or forceful characters. And this is where the production excels. Each character is played with perceptive insight into the universal condition of encroaching old age. Coward carefully charts a course of changing circumstances to capture our interest and portray the familiar aging doyennes of his time.

Dick Goldberg as Osgood Meeker, Joan White as

Sarita Myrtle, Liz Bradley as May Davenport and

Alice Ferguson as Estelle Craven in Waiting in the Wings
  Photo by Helen Drum
There is the silent antagonism between rivals, Lotta Bainbridge (Ros Engledow) and May Davenport (Liz Bradley). A struggle with council, embroiling hassled charity home manager, Perry Lascoe (Peter Holland) threatens the establishment of a solarium for the residents. Newspaper columnist Zelda Fenwick (Antonia Kitzel) offers support in exchange for agreement to do an article on the home. Dementia sufferer Sarita Myrtle (Joan White) dangerously indulges her fascination for flaming matches. Lotta’s prodigal son Alan Bennett – not The Alan Bennett – (Ian Murray) appears after seventeen years to create a familiar dilemma. The years have imprinted their various scars and demeanours upon the ladies of The Wings and today’s audiences are faced with a timeless portrait of the human condition. A parade of resilience or capitulation appears. The wiry, no-nonsense Cora (Adele Lewin) sits and knits and sings out of tune and time. Penny Hunt is a flighty, softly spoken musical Maude in striking contrast to the melodramatically bombastic “Irish Battleaxe” Deirdre O’Malley (Liz St Clair Long ). Anxiety attacks bombard the fearful Estelle Craven (Alice Ferguson). The silent conspicuously inconspicuous resident Almina Clare (Micki Beckett) lends a touch of curious interest to the assembled residents  and Liz de Totth is a compliant and affable Bonita Belgrave, the first to greet surprising new arrival Topsy Baskerville (played with a touch of extravagance by Golda Berdicks!)  In a moving portrayal of the cruel yet kind ravages of the failing mind, Joan White elicited spontaneous applause from the audience This is both the measure of success of Pike’s production and also a moving and relevant appreciation of Coward’s more serious intent. There are also finely observed and detailed performances from Nikki Lynne-Hunter as the home’s kindly but stern  “commandant”. Dick Goldberg is a loyal and loving eccentric Osgood Meeker, visiting his bed-ridden and ninety-five year old wife. Rina Onorato successfully captures the pathos in her performance of Lotta’s companion and maid, Dora as well as the excitable charity home maid, Doreen.
Ros Engledow as Lotta Bainbridge and
Liz Bradley as May Davison in Waiting i
The Wings. Photo by Helen Drum

Pike has directed the production with remarkable sensitivity towards the shifting tones of wit, humour and pathos, describing far more than affectionate comedy in his quest for Coward’s true intent. A parade of cameos offers a nostalgic retrospective on the era of vaudeville and the lost art of the early twentieth century’s theatre. The play revolves largely about the character of Lotta, who has the longer duologue scenes with May, Dora and Alan. Could Coward be referencing his close friend and co-star Gertrude Lawrence,long gone when the play was written? Is the play Coward’s private glimpse at his own advancing years through the prism of actresses that have passed through the portals of his theatrical life?

True to its era, Waiting in the Wings runs for over two and half hours with an interval. Meticulously designed by Andrew Kay and constructed by the Rep team under the supervision of Russell Brown, the play is delightfully staged as a traditional Canberra Repertory homage to the Coward canon. With careful attention to period and production values, Pike is ably assisted by costume designer Anna Senior, lighting designer Nathan Sciberras, sound designer Neville Pye and his collection of Coward interval songs and piano pieces, and properties master Brenton Warren. Particularly commendable is the liaison with Queanbeyan’s Q Theatre that has brought this delicious revival of Coward’s seldom seen play to both Queanbeyan and Canberra audiences. And a special commendation to Rep and Stephen Pike for choosing a piece that affords some of Canberra’s finest women to show what special talent still struts the Queanbeyan and Canberra stages! Hopefully it is a collaboration that will continue, enticing the best talents on the two stages to come together to produce the first class Festive Season entertainment  that is Waiting in the Wings.