Whoever coined the phrase “the more things change, the more things stay the same” may well have been referring to the plot of Home Chat. Almost 100 years since Noel Coward wrote and presented this play in London, its underlying themes of feminism and empowerment continue to resonate in society.
The main character Janet Ebony (Abbie Love) is a free spirit who enjoys male company. Observers may think that, although married to Paul Ebony (Kendall Drury), she is sexually liberated and has little regard for the “shackles” of monogamy. Yet, apart from teasing behaviour and a façade of promiscuity, her loyalty to Paul appears intact. Returning from Paris by train, Janet allows her friend Peter Chelmsworth (Cameron Hutt) to share her sleeper cabin since his was given up to another passenger. The sleepover is all platonic, of course. If it weren’t for the train crashing, knowledge of their shared room would never have become known.
Having returned to London safely, Janet is confronted by husband Paul, her mother Mrs Chillham (Jenny Jacobs), her mother-in-law Mrs Ebony (Lois Marsh), Paul’s “platonic” friend Mavis Wittersham (Ruba El-Kaddoumi) and Peter’s fiancé Lavinia Hardy (Scarlet Hunter). They all seek an explanation of her behaviour. Astonished at the group’s assumption of a tryst with Peter on the train, Janet decides to reinforce that impression by flirting and mocking the two mothers. Paul appears to accept her “affair” and forgives her. This empowers her to pretend the relationship with Peter is more than it really is. Peter makes matters worse by playing along with her. “Have you lost all sense of decency” says Mrs Chillham to her daughter. Janet replies “I live now only for my senses”. How very 21st century! “Be immoral secretly” says her mother.
The play raises some perennial issues. Why can husbands have female friends without question, yet wives with male friends are considered adulterers? At what point do females in “platonic” relationships cross the boundary to be considered fornicators? Home Chat is a remarkably engrossing and intriguing story. Surprisingly, it is not considered to be one of Coward’s better plays, but the witty script, pathetic characters and the topical plot readily maintain the audience’s attention.
Skilfully directed by Barry Nielsen, the play is lively and benefits from a great production team. With only two settings, brilliant backdrops position the action in London. Costumes are colourful and capture the 1920s period perfectly.
Home Chat will get you talking. Make time to see this Australian premiere.
It is on at the Genesian Theatre, 420 Kent Street, Sydney until 12th December.