TOP Damian Lewis Moments 2023: Noël Coward’s London Calling! – A Centenary Celebration

London Calling! was the first musical revue thanks to which Noël Coward broke through as a song and sketch writer as well as a performer. The revue premiered at Duke of York’s Theatre in London on September 4, 1922. And Robert Hazle, a cabaret actor and musical director as well as the Cultural Development Officer at the Noël Coward Foundation has put on stage a centenary celebration of London Calling! at the very theatre it premiered hundred years ago on October 5, 2023. I was very lucky to be in the room during this hour-long, free, and sold out lunchtime performance and I am ready to tell you all about it!

Since Damian told me back in Brighton that his dad would also attend this event, I arrive at the theatre early thinking that father and son would arrive together in a private car. I am completely wrong! Damian arrives an hour and a half before the performance alone. And I am not the only person there waiting for him. Since I started the blog some eight years ago, I figured that there exists a line of business where people just wait for the actors at stage door to have  them sign stuff and then go sell them online. They were also at Band on the Wall in Manchester, in soaking rain, trying to have Damian sign stuff from Band of Brothers before the show as the poor guy tried to get into the venue, late, to do his soundcheck.

In matching leather jackets 🙂

Damian does not disappoint anybody either in Manchester or here at Duke of York’s Theatre stage door, gives autographs and have photos taken with fans. I ask him: “Where is dad? I’ve come early to meet him.” He says his dad will come later, and goes in for rehearsal. And here is a little video clip posted by Noel Coward Foundation from the rehearsal set to music of Parisian Pierrot.

The fun part starts there. It turns out the guy who checks tickets at the theatre door is also supposed to welcome Mr. Lewis to the theatre. But he does not know how he looks like. Since he has already seen Damian was friendly with me, he asks me if I know how Damian’s dad looks like and I say I do. And he kindly asks me if I could wait with him at the door until Mr. Lewis arrives. And so Tsvete gets into the theatre whereas I stand outside to wait for Mr. Lewis. There is word that he is on the tube and should be at the theatre any minute. I wait for him until the last two minutes and then go inside because, otherwise, they may not seat me.

Here is the program.

The performance opens with the overture arranged by Robert Hazle who welcomes us to the centenary celebration. Then he tells us a bit about the Noël Coward Foundation that was set up by Coward’s life partner Graham Payn to continue Coward’s philanthropic work to support art and education projects as well as maintain the extensive archives, around fourteen thousans items, he left behind.

Then Hazle introduces the cast who will collectively recreate some of the moments from the original production.

Luci Gosling  is a historian and curator particularly interested in the social and cultural history of the early twentieth century and  Oliver Soden is a writer and broadcaster who published the critically acclaimed Coward biography Masquerade: The Lives of Noël Coward in 2023. The two of them guide the performance by putting London Calling! in a historical perspective, the impact of the production on Coward’s career and provide insight about the musical numbers to be performed by the international and West End soprano Georgi Mottram and Robert Hazle, and the sketches to be acted by Damian Lewis and Indira Varma.

I have to jump in here and remind you: Most of you already know Indira Varma from Game of Thrones, Rome, and many other films and shows, but did you know that Damian and Indira played husband and wife  in Five Gold Rings back in 2003 which goes into history as the play in which Damian and Helen played lovers and fell for each other in real life <3

Will Keen, Helen McCrory, Damian Lewis and Indira Varma in Five Gold Rings, 2003, Source: Getty Images

They start by singing the biggest hit from the show with a clue sitting in a chair on stage: A Pierrot doll! So here is Georgi Mottram singing “Parisian Pierrot.”

Gosling and Soden talk about where Noël Coward stood in his career when he wrote London Calling! Coward was only 23 at the time so he was certainly  not a household name as a playwright. But you might have seen him in this very theatre as an 11 year old child actor playing one of the “lost boys” in Peter Pan!

London Calling was Coward’s first revue, and  Soden says that he has to highlight that it is not “r-e-v-i-e-w” but it is “r-e-v-u-e” when he talks about London Calling! on radio 🙂 Then Gosling and Soden discuss musical revue as an art form. By 1923, musical revue has been going on in London for a decade or so and stayed popular until the second world war. A unique art form, musical revenue borrows from a number of theatrical performances, including variety, vaudeville, and burlesque. It combines skits, songs, dance numbers and comic routines, elements written especially for the performance. A revue typically goes together with a lavish, carefully executed set design. Soden points out that Coward contributed to revue as an art form in several ways: He brought a tighter, better structure to the performance, and is the first to add satire, an example of which we will see later in today’s performance. And Gosling talks about musical revue as an flexible art form in the sense that it is easy to change the cast or costumes, as well as replace songs or sketches with new ones. London Calling! itself was revised twice during its original run in 1923.

The original performance flyer/poster for London Calling! in 1923

Enters Andre Charlot, a French impresario, who moved to London and became the joint manager of the Alhambra Theatre, where he organizes and finances productions noted for their elegance and simplicity rather than their lavish costumes or set designs.

Coward auditioned for Charlot as a performer when he was 18 but Charlot thought he was awful 🙂 But then in  1922, Coward was on Christmas holiday in Davos. He already had an outline for a musical revue and shared some of the songs with his host Lord Latham  who was very wealthy and dying of TB at the time. Latham liked the songs and invited Charlot to Davos. In a few days, London Calling was complete. And Coward was able to convince Charlot to produce the revue with Parisian Pierrot that later became the most famous musical number in London Calling! and  a career defining song for Coward.

London Calling! also marked the beginning of the long partnership Noel Coward would have with Gertrude Lawrence, with whom he met  when they were child actors, in the decades to come. Lawrence had already played in another Andre Charlot production in 1923, and Charlot thought highly of her. However, Charlot did not think much of Coward as a performer 🙂

Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence in London Calling!

So Coward used his contractual rights to say no to every actor suggested as leading man for the revue and was ultimately able to have himself cast as the leading man in London Calling! He took tap dance classes from the one and only Fred Astaire at the nearby Guildhall School of Music. It is inevitable to mention Damian here since, he is an alumni of Guildhall, and he took tap dance classes as he was filming Homeland.

Soden has reconstructed a monologue in which Coward details the production process, casting, as well as the premier of London Calling! with a fantastic sense of humor. Damian reads the monologue  to us. His posture, mimics, and comic timing are perfect. He really REALLY needs to do  comedy on stage.

Here is the part of the monologue where Coward talks about how he came up  with Parisian Pierrot in Berlin in 1922.

“The idea of it came to me in a night-club…a frowsy blonde, wearing a sequin chest-protector and a divided skirt, appeared in the course of the cabaret with a rag pierrot doll dressed in black velvet. She placed it on a cushion where it sprawled in pathetic abandon while she pranced around it emitting gutteral noises. Her performance was unimpressive but the doll fascinated me”.
Coward came up with the title in the taxi on his way back to the hotel that night.

Next is the first sketch “Early Mourning.” Luci Gosling shares that since telephone was relatively a new household item in early 1920s, telephone sketches were very popular at the time!

Indira Varma portrays Poppy, the main character in the sketch, a woman who has a series of phone calls. First she answers a call and pretends to be her maid and says Poppy is not there. Then she talks to a friend who she is supposed to meet that afternoon, followed by a man who says he is calling from the police station and tells her that her husband from whom she is trying to get a divorce jumped from Waterloo Bridge and died. So she calls to share the news with her friend staying at Claridge’s who asks what time it happened and then a friend in Kensington who had told her last week that something horrible was going to happen. And when Poppy gives the news, she asks which one the Waterloo Bridge is 😀 😀 😀 Finally she calls her lover who happens to be in his bath. And when tells him that Jim is dead, Bobby asks who Jim is 😀 😀 😀 The funniest part comes when Damian, as Poppy’s maid Lily, enters the room. Lily is crying because the upstairs neighbor has just received a call from the police station that her husband jumped from the Waterloo Bridge last night and died. Early mo(u)rning, indeed!

The sketch is followed by a song, What Love Means to Girls Like Me, played by Robert Hazle on the piano and sung by Georgi Mottram. Soden explains that Coward was homosexual when it was illegal in the UK, and that we can find some of his bleak and wary answers to what love means in this song, one of the hit musical numbers in London Calling!

It isn’t that I’m naughty or capricious,
It isn’t that I single out my prey,
I’m sure that I’ve a mind
Too essentially refined
To flaunt my girlish charms in any way.
I sometimes think that Eve was very thoughtless
To wrench the fruit of knowledge from the tree,
More abstemious she’d have been,
Could she only have foreseen
What love means to girls like me.

Rain Before Seven

The next sketch is a witty one about which Gosling and Soden have the most interesting insights. It turns out that, at the time, all West End performances, every single line, every single lyric had to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain’s office before being performed on stage. In fact, if you look at the original performance poster below closely, it says “endorsed by the Lord Chamberlain to Mrs. Violet Menlotte.” Menlotte was the owner of the theatre.

Lord Chamberlain’s office found “Rain Before Seven” sexual and unpleasant and did not endorse it. But then thanks to Coward’s persuasive arguments, the sketch ultimately passed uncut.

The scene is a private sitting room in an extremely luxurious hotel in Venice. There is a window at the back looking over the Grand Canal with a breakfast table set placed exactly in front of the window.

There are two doors at the two ends of the room. Tom enters from the left. He is in his pajamas. He goes to the opposite door and knocks. He has been waiting for Mary, his wife, for breakfast. We learn that they are on their honeymoon, but they have promised not to have sex for a year until they get to know each other well and make sure they are right for each other. They have a row because they are simply unhappy that they cannot have sex, and they get more turned on as they argue 🙂 Damian and Indira are fabulous as Tom and Mary, and here is a picture from the original production so that you can have an idea about the setting.

Gertrude Lawrence and Noel Coward acting “Rain Before Seven” in London Calling!

Soden also shares with us that “Rain Before Seven” is like an early draft for Private Lives, one of the most well-known and regularly revived Coward plays, later. Private Lives is about a divorced couple, Elyot and Amanda, both of who are remarried and on honeymoon with their new spouses. But they figure that they do not only stay in the same hotel but also in adjacent rooms. And, over the course of the play, they start to realize they still have feelings for each other… Now, don’t you think Damian would be perfect as Elyot in a West End revival? Just saying!

Swiss Family Whittlebot

Soden gives us some background about the last sketch. Coward did not like the modernism and intellectualism of the period. He stood for popular art, middle classes and mainstream against modernism, aristocracy and eccentric.

Edith Sitwell, a British poet and critic, and the eldest of the  three literary Sitwells, on the other hand, did not enjoy popular entertainment such as a revue show and she had anxiety over the threat popular shows pose to the “dignity of high art.”

Noël Coward saw Edith Sitwell’s ‘Facade – an Entertainment’ at its first public performance in which Sitwell recited poems set to music through a special megaphone.

The next day a gossip columnist wrote that Coward walked out of the show. Coward denied that and shared it was Edith’s brother Osbert Sitwell who invited him to Façade because he said, probably condescendingly, that he might get some ideas for his revue…

…and he did. Coward wrote the Swiss Family Whittlebot to satirize the Sitwells. And they did not take it well at all.

The Swiss Family Whittlebot is about three siblings Hernia, Gob and Sago. In the sketch, Hernia Whittleboat, brought to life by Damian, recites terrible poems set to awful music made by bizarre musical instruments. And exactly like Edith did it in Façade, Damian as Hernia also grabs a megaphone when the stage manager tells the orchestra to play music to drown the poetry out. It is hysterical!

Maisie Gay as Hernia in the original production

Hernia’s first poem is called ‘Withered Nosegay” a poem that Coward  published a year earlier. The second poem is more directly related to the Sitwells’ collaborative work.

“I will now recite my tone poem “Passion” for which special music has been set by my brother Gob on the conphuticon.”

The third poem is called “Lower Classes.” And when Damian, ahem, Hernia recite the lines

“Melody semi-spheroidal

In all is innate rotundity

Rhubarb for purposes unknown”

they push the entire Whittlebot family to the side and the stage manager starts the next number with the orchestra.

Hernia says:

“People have jeered at us often when walking in the street. They have thrown fruit and vegetables at us, but it is all colour and humour. We see humour in everything.”

London Calling! had four Whittlebot poems. Coward wrote sixteen more and had them privately printed in a volume called “Poems by Hernia Whittlebot” (1923). BRUTAL! No wonder Edith Sitwell did not talk to Coward for decades even though she accepted his apology in 1926 🙂

The performance closes with a surprise! Georgi Mottram and Robert Hazle perform Follow a Star, a song thought lost until it was recently rediscovered when cataloguing the private collection of Coward’s US representative and close friend Geoffrey Johnson who bequeathed his collection to the Noel Coward Archive Trust. Then Hazle invites us all for a Parisian Pierrot sing-a-long. We have the lyrics at the back cover of the program.

Just so you can hear the song and sing along, here is Parisian Pierrot sung by the wonderful Julie Andrews in the movie Star!, a biopic based on Gertrude Lawrence’s life.

After the show, there is a reception for the performance participants upstairs and Robert Hazle is very  kind to hang out with the audience at downstairs bar. So I am very happy to congratulate him for organizing such a fabulous event that I truly enjoyed. Hazle says that working  with Damian was a dream and that he hopes more Coward from him one day… wouldn’t that be a dream for us all? 🙂

L-R: Alan Brodie, Indira Varma, Lucy Gosling, Oliver Soden, Damian Lewis, Georgie Mottram, Robert Hazle

And the surprise of the day is that, while I thought I missed him, I get to meet Mr. Watcyn Lewis. Both Tsvete and I are very excited to meet the  original Lewis and my first words to him are:

“OMG, Sir, such a pleasure to meet you. You are the original Lewis. You made him.”

Mr. Lewis laughs, approachs me and says into my ear:

“Yes. But, believe me, I did not do it on my own.”


And he tells us about his late wife:

“You most probably know she is not with us anymore but she had a big heart. A big heart.”

And, ladies and gentlemen, this is LOVE.

Mr. Lewis is 90 years young, a warm, witty and sharp gentleman. I am in awe. When I tell him that my husband and I are living in Chicago for a year and that I know he lived in Chicago for five years in the 1960s, we talk about Chicago. Particularly the beautiful architecture of the city. He warns me about the cold winters.

Then we talk about theatre and music. Damian has always said in interviews that his dad was responsible for his love of theatre.

“My father was in the city – was, I guess, a city gent in London but an actor manque in many ways, loved the theater, is really responsible for my love of the theater, took us all to the theater a lot when we were kids – often big, Western musicals. He had lived himself in Chicago for five years in the ’60s and so loved and felt a great affiliation with all the those old-school, American, 1930s, ’40s musicals – “42nd Street,” “On Your Toes,” “Guys And Dolls.”

So it’s no wonder Mr. Lewis wanted to be here at Duke of York’s today to see the centenary celebration of London Calling!

One thing I do not remember having read before ( I may have missed but it is a low probability event!) and that Mr. Lewis shares with us is that he  took part in amateur performances in the West End. He had a good singing voice and his own father had a wonderful voice. So, in short, good singing voice runs in the family! Mr. Lewis tells me that he is missing Damian doing his thing on stage, he means theatre. He sees music as a second / third career for his son. He says he was at Omeara and asks me if I have ever seen Damian with his guitar on stage. And when he finds out that I have, he asks me to rate Damian  as a musician on a 1-10 scale.


He laughs. Am I biased?!?! Nooooooooo! 😀

And, believe it or not, we talk about Turkish politics. I mean, Mr. Lewis is extremely well-read about world politics, he knows exactly what is going on in my homeland. Kudos.

Well, every good thing has an end. I have a plane to catch in a couple of hours, and Damian is taking his dad to lunch. How lovely is that! So we say our goodbyes and Damian thanks us for traveling to different cities for his gigs. Well, mate, I hope you know that it is our pleasure to do that. Till next time!

Author: Damianista

Academic, Traveler, Blogger, Runner, Theatre Lover, Wine Snob, Part-time New Yorker, and Walking Damian Lewis Encyclopedia :D Procrastinated about a fan's diary on Damian Lewis for a while and the rest is history!

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