Review: Volcano (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, July 28)

Passions get heated in the shadow of a Caribbean volcano about to spew its elemental fury in Noel Coward’s Volcano, written in 1956 but never performed in his lifetime.

Now on tour prior to a spell in London’s West End, the question must be whether the piece erupts onto the stage with a seismic roar or splutters in and out of life like a damp squib.

The answer, as is so often the case with plays lauded as “forgotten gems,”

lies somewhere in between. There is obviously an historic interest for lovers of Coward and theatre buffs to see the piece at all, but there is a clue about the work in that it hasn’t seen the light of day nor has anyone rushed to stage it.

Roy Marsden’s direction and most of the performances ensure that the play is watchable and many in the audience will take ghoulish pleasure in the knowledge that the story is loosely based on the lives and loves of real people who shared Coward’s island paradise, including the writer Ian Fleming and his wife.

Many of the themes were subjects Coward had already explored so the content was hardly likely to shock in the 1950s, still less in a new century, as handsome lothario Guy (played with charm and swagger by a tasty Jason Durr) oozes his way into the lives of just about anyone who takes his fancy. His affairs are greeted with a frosty disdain by his long-suffering wife (played by Dawn Steele with a cold sarcasm that could be varied a little to give her character more strength and sympathy).

As one of his unsuspecting conquests Perdita Avery is fine, but she is better still in her fiery scene with her husband (played with a vulnerability and likeability by Tim Daish), who has his own confessions to make in the wake of the volcanic discharge.

Stealing the acting honours without doubt are Finty Williams and Robin Sebastian as the happily married and very down to earth ex-pat couple who remain wonderfully unscathed by the overt sexual shenanigans going on around them - their every scene is a joy.

Jenny Seagrove as Adela, a recently widowed banana plantation owner living in a house built on the side of the volcano, seems somewhat ill at ease in her role, and lacks the spark that might have made her relationship with the smooth-talking Guy believable. It is a shame because the rest of the cast really do try their hardest (and by and large succeed) with a work by the Master that lacks his trademark wit and wisdom.

It is undoubtedly a play worth seeing, but it is not the fault of the company that once ignited it fails to deliver everything promised by the title and offers more of a rumble than an explosion.

David Guest