Two Cowardly acts pay tribute to a wit
Hilary Henshaw and the "genuine impostor" Tim Mckew. Photo: John Woudstra
''I LIKE long walks, especially when they are taken by people who annoy me.'' - Noel Coward
LIKE the timeless quips of Oscar Wilde, the acid wit of English wordsmith Noel Coward still hits the mark 39 years after his death. ''Coward was a wonderful observer of human behaviour,'' says Melbourne actress Hilary Henshaw, who has begun touring a show using the words and music of both Coward and Cole Porter.
''What they talk about in their songs is just as relevant today as it was then.''
If you need further proof, please put your hands together for Melbourne entertainer Tim Mckew who has been re-creating Noel Coward on stage for the past six years.
''Yours Cowardly'' is the way Mckew signs his correspondence these days and, while welcoming Henshaw's new bite at the same apple, insists archly: ''Just remember, I am the genuine impostor.''
It was Noel Coward himself who defined wit as ''a glorious treat like caviar'' that should ''never be spread around like marmalade'' and, happily, the Coward brand of caviar seems free of any use-by date.
''I've been to a marvellous party,'' he wrote half a century ago. ''We played a wonderful game. Maureen disappeared and came back in a beard and we all had to guess at her name. Cecil arrived wearing armour, some shells and a black feather boa. Poor Millicent wore a surrealist comb made of bits of mosaic from St Peter's in Rome but the weight was so great that she had to go home - well, I couldn't have liked it more.''
Showbiz veteran John-Michael Howson, who attended one of Henshaw's first Coward shows, said the party scene had not changed at all.
''If you must have motivation, think of your pay cheque on Friday.'' - Noel Coward
So, unexpectedly, Melbourne has given birth to twin Noel Cowards, two separate shows that are weaving their way around the city and the regional performing circuit.
''My Coward shows [there are three of them] evolved from a performance at a 40th wedding anniversary six years ago at the Australia Club,'' explains Mckew, who was a child star on Australian TV's Brian and the Juniors. ''It is Coward with a 21st-century twist. He was always up-to-the-minute so, for example, when singing Poor Little Rich Girl one refers to Paris Hilton, not Barbara Hutton.''
Mckew, the son of an Italian mother and a wharfie who was also an SP bookie, planned to teach music and drama when he left Melbourne University in the 1970s - but the performing bug bit. ''I started at the Flying Trapeze and Last Laugh, then began touring my own cabaret shows. But I had always tried to include a bit of Coward.''
Mckew says that morphing into Noel Coward so frequently has ''changed my neural pathways'' and he finds himself inventing his own Cowardisms. ''I performed at the Seniors Festival at the town hall last year - 60s and over are my key demographic - and found myself playing around with the word Puckapunyal - it 'rolls off the tongue like a Gatling gun'.''
''I love criticism, just so long as it's unqualified praise.'' - Noel Coward
Hilary Henshaw, who teams with pianist Peter Hurley in her show Cheek to Chic, was 12 when she and her parents migrated to Australia as ''10-pound Poms''. She says the ''Britishness'' of Coward is a perfect fit for her: ''Even though I consider myself 100 per cent Australian, you can take the girl out of England, but you can't take England out of the girl.'' Henshaw had the performing genes - her paternal grandmother was a professional actor from a family of British opera singers - and sang as an adolescent on the early Australian TV variety show Sunnyside Up in 1965. Coincidentally, she also sang as a guest on Brian and the Juniors, the same show where her fellow Coward, Tim Mckew, was a regular.
Her first show was called Musical Memoirs of a Ten Pound Pom then she toured Bagels to Broadway, the story of Tin Pan Alley. ''I knew I needed a new show,'' she said, ''and I had always loved Noel Coward - his roots were mine. Together with Cole Porter, I feel Cheek to Chic gives the best of British and America in the art deco era.''
Tim Mckew performs An Evening With Noel Coward at the Butterfly Club, South Melbourne, on May 15 and 16. Hilary Henshaw will present Cheek to Chic in June in Albury, Benalla and South Morang and at the Sutherland Estate winery in July.