A new exhibition is devoted to the visual flair of a debonair playwright whose tastes are almost impossible to define

Noël Coward was the epitome of style. Fittingly that is the subject of a major exhibition opening at London’s Guildhall Art Gallery, containing costumes, set designs, paintings and production photos. Brad Rosenstein, its curator, says Coward is “especially celebrated for his verbal wit” but that the exhibition “will remind us that his original productions were also visual feasts for their audiences”.

That sounds tempting – but it raises several questions. What, actually, do we mean by style? And how has it changed over the years? In Coward’s case, style consisted of the effortless projection of a unique personality. You see that clearly on an album cover of a 1955 LP, Noël Coward at Las Vegas, where he stands in the Nevada desert immaculately clad in dark suit and suede shoes while clutching a cup of tea. I only saw Coward once in the flesh and that was at the first night of a compilation show, Cowardy Custard, at the Mermaid theatre in London in 1972. Although visibly aged, he seemed immensely debonair. But my chief memory is of how John Moffatt dried in the middle of a Coward song. With superb insouciance, Moffatt simply asked the conductor to go back to the beginning of the number. That’s what I call style.

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