Coward's critic pens gala act

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 May, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 May, 1999, 12:00am

Interviewing Sheridan Morley is like trying to pin down a very charming black rainstorm. Endless anecdotes pour out of him in a deluge of words, washing away all prepared questions and attempts at interruption. Perhaps that is what happens when you have been a drama critic for more than three decades and spent countless nights listening to other people's texts: the chance to write your own is irresistible.

Morley, theatre reviewer for the International Herald Tribune and The Spectator, was in Hong Kong this week to host Out In The Midday Sun, a gala celebration of Sir Noel Coward's centenary year, at the Grand Hyatt. He was just in Singapore, where the show was performed at Raffles Hotel, and this weekend the company will be at the Oriental in Bangkok, both hotels being former Coward haunts.

It is evidently Coward - and indeed the Morley family's - gala week in Hong Kong, because Private Lives opens tonight at the Conrad, courtesy of the late Derek Nimmo's touring company of which Hugo Morley, Sheridan's son and Coward's godson, is manager. 'I hope I'm wrong but this may be the end of that kind of thing,' says Morley senior. 'My son and Derek's son are now talking about doing more cutting-edge stuff, not these hotel comedies, in places like Scandinavia and South America.' Coward, of course, had his own cutting edge. All his life, he was the smiler with the knife. He was a master of sly wit and the deadly putdown, both characteristics being much in evidence during the show at the Grand Hyatt. In the 30 years since his death, he has suffered several reversals of critical fortune but Morley, who wrote his biography, and Graham Payne, Coward's lover, have steadfastly kept the name alive.

'There seems to be a hunger for the good life,' he says. 'People want glamour these days, not facially challenged punk rockers. It was Noel who was the first person to put people on stage with the sort of Tatler lives that the audience could aspire to.' The pair met when Morley, then a young journalist with The Times, went to interview Coward in 1965. When the idea of a biography came up, Morley - who has since gone on to chart the lives of such luminaries as Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich - was so ignorant of the whole process that he presumed he split his share of the proceeds with Coward.

The master soon put him right, on that as on many other things. 'He gave me two lists of phone numbers and said, 'These are my friends but much more importantly, these are my enemies and you should ring them first.' He also said, 'The only thing you cannot do is tell the truth about my sexuality, not because I'm ashamed, but because my audience are not young radicals, they're old ladies from Kent. They know I'm gay, I know I'm gay, but the deal is we, none of us mention it.' ' Oddly enough, Coward's last play, Song At Twilight, is a blackmail thriller about what, these days, would be termed 'outing'. Morley, who had never directed before, decided to launch the centenary year in January by putting it on at a London fringe theatre. For a drama critic, of course, this was a ticklish fence to cross but fortunately his peers were impressed, and the play will transfer to the West End this summer.

Such success is sweet news to Morley. That he should have been a critic was evidently written in the stars but as he ruefully observes, it isn't enough to be a reviewer. 'I don't want to die as somebody who wrote about other people's efforts. I want to be seen as someone who did more than comment.'




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