One mourns the loss of the short play.

Coward certainly celebrated them when he wrote Tonight at 8.30, a cycle of 10 one-act plays meant to be performed over three evenings. We only get a taste of the whole in Peter Goers’ latest offering at Holden Street Theatres’ Arch, Cowardy, Cowardy Custard, but the ensemble of veteran and newcomer stars gives a rip-roaring go of the Received Pronunciation, whisky tumblers, and extravagant turn-of-the-century frocks.

First performed in 1935 in Manchester, the cycle toured London, New York and even our humble antipodes through 1936-1938. As the storm gathered in Europe, Coward lampooned the declining British culture of the last century. Thus, in Red Peppers, we witness George and Lily Pepper (Geoff Revell and Martha Lott), middling vaudeville players with minimal talent, scrounging a living in an ‘English provincial town’, and in Hands Across the Sea, we witness an unfolding catastrophe of mistaken identities and tea party faux pas, as British socialites Mr and Mrs Gilpin can’t seem to remember who they’ve invited over.

A word or two about the performances. The pleasing percussion of Revell and Lott’s cockney adds to the clever writing in Red Peppers, though the acoustics of the space prove challenging to make out all the puns and witty retorts. David Arcidiaco plays a suave navy man with the necessary ease in the latter play, and John Doherty and Helen Geoffreys manage to inhabit the tropes of affected upper-class elites so effortlessly that they could have stepped out of an historical photograph.

However, some of the introduced slapstick, and the extended pauses in Hands Across the Sea, at times break up the flow of the performances. Actors sometimes seem as if they are delivering their own performances to the nth degree, rather than interacting and responding to each other as their characters become increasingly flustered by the farcical comedy. Perhaps it is that tastes and attitudes have changed much since Coward’s day: certainly, Britain has.

Nevertheless, it is pleasing to encounter Noel Coward’s writing onstage in Adelaide in 2024. It’s worth seeing if you’re a fan of Coward, Goers, Lott, or any of the rest.

Cowardy, Cowardy Custard is playing at Holden Street Theatres until June 1. It is part of the 2024 Cabaret Fringe Festival, which runs from May 24 until June 2.

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