Suite in Three Keys review – Noël Coward hotel trilogy stares stylishly into the abyss

<span>Sparky, penetrating dialogue … Tara Fitzgerald in Suite in Three Keys.</span><span>Photograph: Steve Gregson</span>
Sparky, penetrating dialogue … Tara Fitzgerald in Suite in Three Keys.Photograph: Steve Gregson

This 1965 trilogy of late works by Noël Coward has all his signature marks: wealthy couples, glamorous mistresses, secrets, intrigue and wit. Each play takes place in the same elegant Swiss hotel suite, complete with a drinks trolley which becomes key to unleashing the domestic fracas.

They are distinct for their well-wrought, intimate and sometimes dark treatment of their subject matter. Directed by Tom Littler, each features a compromised marriage, a tussle between self-fulfilment and convention, and a midlife malaise which carries the sense of a dramatist staring into the abyss of later life – the abyss staring right back at him, and us.

The couples are played by Tara Fitzgerald, Emma Fielding and Stephen Boxer, who deftly juggle parts, alongside a charming reappearing waiter (Steffan Rizzi) who serves their champagne and caviar. As a concept, it is similar to Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite, recently staged in the West End, except here the dialogue is sparkier and more penetrating.

Shadows of the Evening – performed as a double bill with Come into the Garden, Maud – might be classed as a drawing-room comedy of mortality rather than manners. An ailing publisher, his mistress and his estranged wife try to come to terms with his terminal diagnosis. There is talk of life after death, religion and nothingness. “I’m prepared to die believing only in life itself,” he says, and such profundities are balanced by levity – just about.

Come into the Garden, Maud has a more playful set-up concerning the giddiness (or foolishness?) of middle-aged passion. Fielding’s bullish American wife is a highlight and meets a formidable match in Fitzgerald’s impish – and impoverished – princess who is out to seduce her rich husband. Old-school satire exploits the cliche of the unclassy American but its frothiness is infectious nonetheless.

The third play, A Song at Twilight, features the life of another sick man, an unlikable writer, whose former lover tries to blackmail him over his closet homosexuality. It is the most tragic of the three but also static and ponderous, although it asks interesting questions about what is private and what rightfully worthy of public interest within a writer’s legacy.

The writer insists his sexuality is his business even when his ex-lover says the “sustained camouflage” wreaked damage on his male lover. The main character is said to be based on Somerset Maugham; Coward subscribed to the same philosophy in his lifetime, too.

Overall, the institution of marriage does not come out well. Neither does the long-suffering spouse, most often a wife. Watching all three consecutively makes for almost five and a half hours of theatre which, entertaining, well-executed and giving depth to Coward’s oeuvre, is a marathon in mid-life regret.