Jane Asher on Coward and Callow ahead of Song At Twilight
- Credit: ©Nobby Clark Photographer
One of the UK's most accomplished actresses is set to star in a bittersweet comedy about being the 'other woman' to a world-famous author.
Picture the scene. World-famous author Sir Hugo Latymer is living out his latter years in a luxurious hotel suite overlooking the beautiful Lake Lausanne in Switzerland.
With his every whim looked after by his long-suffering wife and a very attentive waiter, he is content if a little spiky.
So the unexpected arrival of an old flame Carlotta is understandably going to put him on edge and the scene is set for a play which promises to unearth regrets and a look at how life could have been.
Sir Hugo's worry about his journey in life partially mirrors Noel Coward's own circumstances as he penned A Song At Twilight, which turned out to be his final play.
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It is one of a trio all set in the same high-end hotel suite which is still there.
As Jane explains: 'The designer for the play actually visited them partly to get inspiration and partly because he was in the area anyway.
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'In fact, you can still rent a suite there for up to three thousand pounds a week.'
Jane takes on the role of Carlotta who is a former actress and had an affair with Sir Hugo forty years ago.
As the play begins, he is very nervous about her motivation for coming to see him.
What is she after and will she still have the energy which first brought the pair together all those years ago?
As the plot unfolds, the intricacy and craft of Coward's characterization and writing slowly reveals what is in store.
Jane said: 'When she arrives, Carlotta is a very interesting character and you get these glimmers of why she might be there but nothing definite. 'This is one of those plays where you cannot give away too much as you would spoil it but there is a secret which emerges and you understand why Carlotta has gone to see Hugo, albeit in a slightly roundabout way.
'Interestingly, she does actually get what she was after but not through her own devices.
'It comes through an unusual route towards the end of the play via some cliffhanging moments, some surprising circumstances and some superb dialogue.
'It is wonderful that this – the last play he wrote - had this wonderful success.
'Coward said the three plays he wrote are very similar to Neil Simon's Plaza Suite that was written later and he remarked, 'What a clever idea. Where could Neil have got it from?' I think he always thinks quite rightly that he initiated that idea.'
There is also a similarity between Noel Coward and his character Hugo.
Despite the two sharing personality traits, Hugo was not actually inspired by Coward himself.
Jane said: 'He was actually based on Somerset Maugham and if you look at his personal life and career, you can see there are a lot of very distinctive echoes.'
This multi-layered approach is also seen in Carlotta who, in the opening minutes might be seen as just a gold-digger but, as the play continues, it emerges she does not need money and her motivations are much deeper.
Jane explained: 'It seems that Carlotta might be trying to put something right that was done wrong to her.
'In actual fact, I think it is more about the feeling we sometimes get that we need to fight for something to be put right and not necessarily for our own good.'
There are also some very moving moments as the characters reflect on what might have been, as people's day-to-day choices inform how their life pans out.
Jane explained: 'It is very poignant at the end. There is a wonderful moment when the play ends with a little couplet which is extremely moving and Hugo finally faces up to a lot of facts about his life and how he should have behaved.'
It is this blend of comedy and emotion which takes A Song At Twilight stand out among Coward's work.
Jane said: 'To be honest, we did wonder how this would go down because of course people do come to a Coward play expecting Hay Fever and Blithe Spirit and it has all that in it but it does get a lot deeper.
'It is about a man with experience and great heart.
'We found so much more about Coward and how the flippant exterior hid something much deeper and darker and definitely very moral. You see a lot of that in the play.'
It is the latest part in what has been a distinguished career for Jane who started working in film and television as a child.
She has boasted numerous credits over the years with roles in productions and programmes as diverse as Alfie, Brideshead Revisited, The Mistress, Stephen Poliakoff's Dancing On The Edge, and Holby City.
Meanwhile, as well as previous Noel Coward plays, Jane has also appeared in the likes of An American In Paris: The Musical in the West End, Pride and Prejudice at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, Charley's Aunt and Festen, plus numerous productions for the National Theatre, Royal Court, across London's theatre-land and on Broadway.
A Song At Twilight is getting some fantastic audience reaction.
Jane said: 'People come round to see you after the show and say it is so funny. Even those who say they would normally come to see a musical or a thriller say it is wonderful!
'I do love doing Noel Coward plays though. This isn't your usual clipped witty repartee.
'There is a lot more to it than that and a lot of depth but at the same time, there are some very lovely moments. I love doing it and after all, who doesn't enjoy doing something that is well-written?'
Jane also says she is working with a fantastic company of actors including the hugely-experienced Simon Callow who takes on the role of Hugo.
As well as being a tremendously gifted actor and kind person, Jane says he has another enviable virtue.
She laughed: 'He knows more things about more things than almost anyone I know. His knowledge is fantastic particularly anything to do with the arts but he bears it lightly.
'You never feel he is showing off.
'These extraordinary facts will emerge in a discussion about something or another. Not only will there be all the stuff he knows but the fact he can fish it out from the back of his brain. It is extraordinary.'
So it seems on-stage and off, A Song At Twilight is definitely hitting all the right notes for Jane Asher.
A Song At Twilight comes to Norwich Theatre Royal from April 8 to 13 at 7pm with Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2.30pm.
Tickets cost £10 to £33.50 and to book log onto www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk or call the box office on 01603 630000.