One-act plays were hugely popular as curtain-raisers in the Victorian age and during the early years of the 20th century. But they went out of fashion.
Noël Coward tried to give the genre a fillip in 1935 when he wrote Tonight at 8.30, which was a collection of nine one-act plays divided into three separate programmes. They were vehicles for himself and his leading lady, Gertrude Lawrence, giving them a variety of roles to play, and also a chance to sing and dance.
We Were Dancing, very light, very slight, is one of the weakest of the nine and relies entirely on the sophistication and the personalities of the actors. The characters are brittle, blasé colonial Brits who had nothing better to do than drink whisky and have affairs.
A married woman (Lianne Harvey) and a married man (James Sindall) fall in love one night and out of love before dawn; and even before they have had time to have sex. .
The Better Half is one of Coward’s earliest plays and much more interesting, even though it goes on too long and becomes tiring. A wife (Tracey Pickup) is fed up with her dull husband (Stephen Fawkes) who is always so nice, so kind, so noble and so forgiving.
She encourages him to have an affair. Finding him reluctant to do so she confesses to affairs she has never had, hoping he will give her a good thrashing. If only he had!
Or, better still, kill her. It would have been totally appropriate denouement at the Little Theatre, home of Grand Guignol, and where The Better Half premiered in 1922.
Coward said it was received with apathy, possibly, because it was a satire and too flippant in atmosphere after the full-blooded horrors that had gone before. A murder might have been just the thing to make the audience sit up.
I came out of the Old Red Lion thinking here are so many one-act plays which are far more worthy of revival.
Featured image Lianne Harvey andJames Sindall in We Were Dancing