The Real Housewives of London

Culture Watch
tags: theater reviews, plays, Noel Coward, Fallen Angels


Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

Fallen Angels
Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey
36 Madison Ave, Madison, NJ
Madison, New Jersey

The Real Housewives of New Jersey, Beverly Hills, New York, Orange County and the rest of those shows are rank amateurs at sex, lying, deceit, treachery, materialism and greed compared to the London housewives in Noel Coward’s outrageously funny play Fallen Angels, which opened in 1925.

The rollicking play about sexuality in tepid old London town in the middle of the Roaring Twenties opened last weekend at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey and this hilarious new production is so bright and refreshing that it could have been written by Coward last Tuesday. It could be lifted, whole, and used as a Real Housewives episode.

The play has everything: two dreary husbands, two sex crazed wives, a suave, romantic Frenchman lover and even a maid named Jasmine who is called Saunders and belts out a tune at the piano when no one is looking. It has lots of funny lines and plenty of swagger on the part of the pert housewives, two bombastic women who would fit right into today’s society, martinis firmly in hand.

The plot is simple. Two straight laced husbands areaway on a golf weekend when their wives, Julia and Jane, longtime best friends, discover that a man they both bedded seven years earlier, prior to their marriages, is on his way to London from Paris to see them once again. They race about Julia’s apartment like schoolgirls getting ready for a first date. He does not arrive though and, hour by hour, they drink and drink, waiting for him. They continually denounce each other, seeing each other as rivals for the Frenchman’s affection. They also become nearly dead drunk in the process.

I have not seen a Coward play in years and had forgotten how witty the British writer was. He loaded his script with sharp zingers. There is no dry wit, the staple of the British comedy, in this play. His women shred each other with barbs aimed right at the heart. It is a very funny play, and the laughter shakes the walls of the 1920s home in which they reside.

You want to see drinking? These two women drink until there is no liquor left, and then they drink some more. There is an expression that when someone is drunk they have three sheets to the wind. Jane and Julia have all the sheets in Macy’s department store to the wind.

The play, fabled Coward’s second, opened in 1925 with the saucy movie sensation Tallulah Bankhead, as its star. It was one of the first plays that discussed marital infidelity in such a brazen manner. It sent shock waves through staid British society, whose men, of course, were still reeling from the newly enfranchised women voters, many of whom had become flappers and hung out at night clubs by then.

Londoners were shocked by the play when it debuted in 1925, the same year the American novel, The Great Gatsby, with its partying and infidelity was published. The British were appalled by the sexuality of Fallen Angels, outraged that two married women would carry torches for an old flame (and a French flame at that!), and that, now having sexy Maurice to wrap their arms around, they would get stupifyingly, fall down drunk. The stiff upper lip Brits went into a social spin over the play, one outdoing the other in denouncing it and wailing about the sex talk. The very idea that a married woman might hop into bed with another man! That they had before!

Critics blasted it with a cannonade of fire not seen since the American Revolution. It was denounced as “vulgar,” “disgusting,” “obscene,” “degenerate” and “vile.” One critic for a large London newspaper called the two women “suburban sluts.”

Needless to say, once the public knew all about the sex, they flocked to the theater in droves to see the play.

The women in the play dress like the women of the Roaring Twenties, strutting about the London flat of Julia in everything from 1920s robes to flapper dresses and crowns. The men are properly dressed for the period and rumble about playing golf at a famous resort. There could be a lot more history in the play, if only in references to post World War I life, the type of cars they drove, or the men’s businesses, or the silent movie houses, the architecture of the city, the newspapers of the day (they do talk about 20s golf great Bobby Jones). Then again, Coward was too busy with acerbic character assassination to worry about history.

Fallen Angels probably did not fall very much at all. Relationships are full of anger and many people carry around memories of past loves and conquests, and perhaps a yearning to see an old flame once again. In Fallen Angels, this all becomes an n industry.

Julie Jesneck, as Julia, and Melissa Miller, as Jane, are a sensational daring duo as the stars of Fallen Angels. Their humor is right on target and they deliver their lines with an impeccable sense of timing, all the while contorting their faces into masks of comic horror. Other fine performances are from Allison Mackie as Saunders Ned Noyes and Jeffrey Bender as the husbands and Michael Sharon as the Frenchman.

Director Matthew Arbour does a splendid job of making the play unbelievably fresh. His deft hand makes this 88 year old comic gem a contemporary marvel.

If you want to charge back nearly one hundred years into the past for a good laugh, go see Fallen Angels.

PRODUCTION: Produced by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Sets: Charles Corcoran, Costumes: Martha Bromelmeier, Lighting: Tony Galaska, Sound: Jane Shaw. Through July 28.

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