Relative Values: Noel Coward’s Uneasy Celebration of Hierarchy

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Relative Values, first performed and set in 1951, marked Noël Coward’s return to comic playwriting after World War II. The times are changing; social hierarchies aren’t what they used to be. But the play reveals a slightly bitter side to Coward and seems to adamantly refuse this; 1951 marks a moment shortly before the Conservatives came back to power, and the play is a celebration of Britain’s ‘natural’ hierarchy.

Felicity, the Countess of Marchwood, learns that her son is engaged to a Hollywood star far below his status, and the household is all in a bother. Felicity’s beloved maid, Moxie — a part of the household for 19 years and more like family than a servant — declares that she must leave because of it. Felicity begs the reason out of her, the truth of which turns their world on its head, and calls for Moxie to play ‘above her station’, something that the maid claims ‘wouldn’t do, it wouldn’t be right’.

The play is about as traditional as they come. There’s nothing new or exciting in production or concept, and the slightly outdated humour might leave a bitter taste in your mouth. However, there’s something magic about watching a play exactly as it was half a century ago. The set changes give way to short video clips from the time period, which adds a welcome touch of nostalgia, while the set itself is beautifully crafted and the acting consistent and earnest, with Patricia Hodge as Felicity commanding the stage. While some of the laughter was slightly nervous — in response to the snobbery of the script — most of it was genuine.

Relative Values is on now at the Harold Pinter Theatre in the West End, until June. Tickets from £20. For more information visit the website. Londonist saw this performance on a complimentary press ticket. 

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