There was a time when everyone on the stage and screen spoke with Received Pronunciation, that wonderfully clear style of speech which allowed the public to understand every clipped vowel and consonant.
Never a complaint about mumbling then.
But it often gave films and plays an unreal quality. The characters from the working class north or the coster-mongers of London’s East End spoke awfully posh like they’d been educated at Eton rather than on the back streets of Bermondsey.
Noël Coward’s rarely performed 1950 musical, Ace Of Clubs, is set in the seedy underworld of a Soho nightclub where Spivs do dodgy deals and showgirls called Pinkie and Baby walk out with Stage Door Johnnies.
I’m sure Coward must have occasionally wandered through the dimly lit side streets of that once sleazy neighbourhood, and listened to its inhabitants, but you’d never know it.
Each character in the musical is a stereotype.
Still I’m delighted that fledgling director Jack Thorpe-Baker has chosen to stage Ace Of Clubs in Coward’s vernacular rather than update the tone of the dialogue.
AOC is running at The Union Theatre, a bijou off-West End venue in Southwark that, on just one visit, instantly became one of my favourite places to watch theatre.
The auditorium is laid out like a smoky Soho speakeasy with the audience rubbing knees with the cast around small, tightly packed tables.
Local gangster, Smiling Joe Snyder (straight out of central casting by John Game), is propped up in the corner while his moustachioed none-to-bright heavy, puts the strong arm on the handsome bartender (Patrick Neyman).
Meanwhile a lonesome sailor, home on leave, only has eyes for the club’s star turn, the stylish songbird Pinkie LeRoy (a very stylish Emma Harris.)
A fight breaks out and a very valuable package goes missing. The rest of the story involves a chase to recover the packet, a love story, some powerfully sung musical numbers, and a spectacular dance routine by our mariner, Harry (Gary Wood).
The dialogue is pure Coward. Never was a man so out of his depth in writing real life gangsters and goodtime girls.
But it breaths Coward’s louche, tongue-in-cheek charm.
Wood and Harris are very Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard from Brief Encounter as they gaze into each other’s eyes and whisper sweet nothings about love and swag.
The musical is jolly good fun with the intimacy of the venue adding to the atmosphere.