Coward’s `Better Half’

Now this, dear boy, is exciting.

A heretofore “lost” Noel Coward play is having its U.S premiere courtesy of San Francisco’s Thrillpeddlers, the group that specializes in Grand Guignol theater (bloody fun theater — think Sweeney Todd) at their theater space known as the Hypnodrome.

The one-act is called The Better Half, and according to a press release, it “skewers the sexual mores of the British upper crust.”

Apparently a pair of Welsh academics unearthed this nugget of a play, which Coward wrote in 1921 at age 22, before his superstar status had caught up with his superstar opinion of himself. “His caustic wit was already fully in evidence,” said University of Glamorgan professor Dr. Richard Hand, who discovered the original manuscript (with his colleague, Michael Wilson) deep in the files of the Lord Chamberlain at the British Library.

“Coward wrote it for London’s Grand Guignol Company,” Hand explained, “which was the British version of France’s notorious Théâtre du Grand Guignol, which specialized in scandalous comedies and terror plays. It was performed in May 1922, but never again. And it never has been published in any form.”

Dr. Hand will be in attendance at the Friday, March 21 opening-night show to discuss the discovery of the Coward play as well as his new book, London’s Grand Guignol and the Theatre of Horror.

Here’s Thrillpeddlers cofounder and artistic director Russell Blackwood: “It’s incredibly exciting, and due largely to our longstanding relationship with Richard Hand and Michael Wilson, that the Coward estate granted us the rights to stage the American premiere. And what’s even better is that the play is really good! According to Richard, the manuscript shows where the British censors struggled with cutting Coward’s more controversial innuendoes. But in the end it was so well written, and so funny, that they left it alone.”

The play is an unconventional comedy of manners depicting the sexual intrigues of an unhappily married couple, Alice and David, and the suggestion of David’s possible dalliance with Alice’s best friend, Marion. Alice Louise (Alice), Jonathan Ingbretson (David) and Alison Sacha Ross (Marion) portray the well-heeled but duplicitous troika.

The Thrillpeddlers are presenting the Coward play as part of Flaming Sin: London’s Grand Guignol. Also on the bill is The Old Women, or A Crime in a Madhouse, André de Lorde and Alfred Binet’s quintessential Grand Guignol shocker, which will comprise the “terror” portion of the evening. Set in a French insane asylum for women, the play was notorious for its unsettling mixture of suspense, gruesomeness, and farce. The latest version of this Thrillpeddlers staple is directed by Blackwood.

Please note: The Hypnodrome has also added two new “Turkish Corner” Shock Boxes, in which couples may bask in decadent languor while enjoying the show. Other Shock Boxes include “Heaven and Hell,” the “Pharaoh’s Tomb” and the “Padded Cell.” The theater’s popular private “Shock Box” seats offer the same opportunity for illicit trysting that was once a feature of the Parisian Théâtre du Grand Guignol-with added special effects as a nod to the 1950s horror movie gimmicks of William Castle.

Flaming Sin: London’s Grand Guignol is at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through May 3, 2008 at the Hypnodrome, 575 10th St. (between Bryant and Division), San Francisco
Tickets are $20 (and, er, $69 for Shock Box seats for two). Call 800-838-3006 or visit for information. You might also want to check out and

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