An ex-lover sends two married women into a spin, writes Dionne Christian

Maid roles are very important," declares actor Claire Dougan, who has played a couple in her career, most notably Lady Rochford in last year's Auckland Theatre Company hit Anne Boleyn.

Playing doomed Anne's lady-in-waiting was a role Dougan attacked with relish. Now she gets to show what she can do as a leading lady in a comedy once described by critics as vile, obscene and an attack on the virtues of British women.

Noel Coward's 1925 comedy Fallen Angels shocked audiences when it premiered at London's Globe Theatre (now the Gielgud Theatre) because its two female protagonists - one of whom was played by Tallulah Bankhead - had had premarital sex, got rip-roaring drunk and plotted to commit adultery with a former lover.

While contemporary audiences may be used to seeing women behaving badly - in Sex and the City or Bridesmaids - in the 1920s, upper-class wives were meant to be dignified and submissive practitioners of the Cult of Domesticity, who ignored the more liberal mores roaring all around them.


"Yes, I can imagine it [Fallen Angels] was quite scandalous in its time," says Dougan, somewhat understatedly. A few seconds later, she's laughing at a newspaper reference which paralleled the play's action with the real lives of certain Auckland socialites.

A comedy of manners about social expectations, female friendship, sex, marriage and the upper classes, Fallen Angels takes place in the opulent London apartment of Julia Sterroll (Lisa Chappell). She intends having a pleasant weekend with her lifelong gal-pal and neighbour Jane Banbury (Dougan) while their husbands (played by Stephen Lovatt and Stelios Yiakmis) go on a golfing weekend.

But Julia and Jane's plans are thrown into chaos by the arrival of a postcard from an ex-lover, alluring Frenchman Maurice Duclos (Jonathan Allen), who announces he intends to visit them. Contented but bored in their respective marriages, Julia and Jane are soon thinking about what might have been and downing glass after glass of champagne to quell their nerves. As the girls lose their inhibitions, petty jealousies and insecurities surface and the insults begin to fly. All this is watched by Julia's wily maid, Saunders (Priyanka Xi).

"It's very funny and very fun to play," says Dougan. "Playing a drunk is always a great acting challenge. The way to approach it is to try not to appear drunk."

Any special advice on that from Dougan's former Unitec drama teacher and Fallen Angels director Raymond Hawthorne? "No, we just assume everyone knows how to do that."

Despite an extensive CV, which has seen her work mainly at Court Theatre in Christchurch and at Dunedin's Fortune Theatre, Dougan has never appeared in a Noel Coward play. She says that's okay because she understands the style and enjoys plays that, like Coward's, are dexterous with language and work on multiple levels.

"Each of the women goes through a huge arc in the play and it's lovely to have this big, sweeping arc to play with. They are witty, intelligent and charming characters but they're also vulnerable and questioning what life is all about. They are very much the central protagonists and it's lovely to have a play that features women so strongly.

"We see them desperately trying to do the right thing but all the while we are asking - they're asking - what the right thing actually is. Their lives are idyllic but there's a but."

Hawthorne sees the comedy as about the conflict between a comfortable existence and the desire for past excitement.

Even if they are behaving badly, Hawthorne says the players are upmarket and the set needs to be classy and stylish to match.

He and designer Tracey Grant Lord have worked determinedly to emphasise how desirable Julia's and Jane's lives are by creating a sumptuous set, including importing fabric from New York.