What a Swell Party
A musical play by Jonathan Rowe
Music and lyrics by Cole Porter
Performed by St Luke's Church Players, 11th -14th May 2011
Jonathan Rowe's work is a celebration of the life (and death) of Cole Porter – episodes from his life in both narration and small but important scenes, interspersed by his wonderful music sung by the cast.
The choice of such a legend of stage and screen as the subject for an amateur dramatics performance is both ambitious and challenging - although that's not unusual for these Players!
Cole Porter's life was both complex and controversial. Born in 1891 to a rich family, Cole ignored his grandfather's wish for him to become a lawyer, and switched from Harvard Law School to the university's musical facility at age 22. A homosexual in an age when homosexuality was at best frowned on, he married Linda Lee Thomas in 1919. The marriage allowed him a respectable heterosexual front and provided Linda with the opposite of her abusive first husband: they were devoted to each other, and the marriage, for much of its duration, was very happy.
Despite being a prolific song-writer, Cole didn't really see success until 1928, at the age of 36, with the production of the musical Paris.
<- Matt Plumley as Louis B Mayer, in full flow!
In 1937, while Cole was out riding, his horse rolled on his legs, breaking them both and leaving him in constant pain for the rest of his life. Amputation was recommended, but he (and his wife and mother) resisted, and the operation was not carried out. His much-loved mother passed away in 1952, and his adored wife died of emphysema in 1954. By 1958 the injuries to his legs had caused ulcers, and the right leg had to be amputated. While this relieved the relentless pain, he nevertheless never wrote another song, and died, something of a recluse, in 1964 at the age of 73.
The Porter's parties were legendary, with just about everyone who was anyone attending, and the combination of bitchiness, snobbery and one-upmanship that is a feature of such events is skilfully depicted by the cast. Portrayal of the parties, at which we meet (or at least hear of the exploits of!) some of the brightest lights of the time, form a large part of the performance, and the joi de vivre encapsulated in the songs and dance provide an able counterpoint to the more serious undercurrents of the time, especially in the sequences dealing with the war.
Of the performances all were ably accomplished and sympathetic. Simon Williams (Cole himself) manages a difficult role in a sensitive yet authoritative manner, and Jenny Rowland is lovely as his wife. The Berlins (Mark and Becca Plumley) are gorgeously privileged, and Edith Taylor, as Elsa Maxwell, suitably nosy and vivacious. Nick Lathrope, as Bobby, one of Cole's young lovers, deserves a special mention for playing a difficult part with skill and subtlety.
The costumes are wonderful, the American accents a little hit or miss (though this doesn't detract at all from the action), and the songs well-chosen to illustrate the themes. All in all a highly-enjoyable evening's entertainment - and instructive too!
Suitably, the play ends on a poignant note - "Turn out the lights, the party's over."
Photographs © Becca Plumley.
© 2011 Joules Taylor