Playwright Noel Coward was in exceptionally high spirits when his play of the same name opened at Manchester’s Palace Theatre in October 1964.

It was a double celebration for the legendary impresario as another of his plays, Hay Fever, had started its run at the Opera House just the day before.

There was a real twinkle in the maestro’s eye as he sipped champagne with the cast of High Spirits, including actresses Jan Waters and Marti Stevens.

Playwright Noel Coward with Maggie Smith, left, and Jan Waters, October 1964

Playwright Noel Coward with Maggie Smith, left, and Jan Waters, October 1964

His smile was just as broad when he was joined by Maggie Smith, Lynn Redgrave and Louise Pernell – the female leads from Hay Fever.

It was a night of pure theatrical glitz and glamour as cast and crew mingled with Manchester’s finest – and M.E.N. photographers were there to capture the moment.

But the bonhomie and expectation of Manchester slowly faded when the two plays moved to London’s West End.

Actresses Lynn Redgrave, right, and Louise Purnell with Noel Coward, October 1964

Actresses Lynn Redgrave, right, and Louise Purnell with Noel Coward, October 1964

High Spirits was a musical version of Coward’s 1945 play Blithe Spirit, which told the story of a husband troubled by the ghost of his dead wife.

It had opened on Broadway in April 1964 and closed in February 1965.

After completing its run in Manchester, the play transferred to the Savoy Theatre in London in November 1964. It lasted only 63 performances.

Honor Blackman opens a telegram from Noel Coward at the Palace Theatre, November 1968

Honor Blackman opens a telegram from Noel Coward at the Palace Theatre, November 1968

The London cast, particularly Cicely Courtneidge as the clairvoyant Madame Arcati, clashed continuously with Coward. It was not a happy production.

Coward’s second Manchester play, Hay Fever, fared little better. Originally staged in 1925, it told the story of the eccentric Bliss family and their reaction to weekend visitors at their country house.

The play, one of Coward’s early works, was described as a cross between high farce and a comedy of manners.

Vivien Leigh in The South Sea Bubble at Manchester Opera House, March 1956

Vivien Leigh in The South Sea Bubble at Manchester Opera House, March 1956

After Manchester, it moved to London where it was performed by the National Theatre Company at the Old Vic. The cast included Maggie Smith, Lynn Redgrave and Edith Evans, with Coward himself as director.

His reaction to the revival was doubtful to say the least.

When first asked to direct the production, he wrote: ‘I am thrilled and flattered and frankly a little flabbergasted that the National Theatre have had the curious perceptiveness to choose a very early play of mine and give it a cast that could play the Albanian telephone directory.’
It was little wonder that the play did not enjoy a long run.

Marti Stevens in the musical High Spirits at the Palace Theatre, October 1964

Marti Stevens in the musical High Spirits at the Palace Theatre, October 1964

Another musical connected with Coward, Mr and Mrs, opened at Manchester’s Palace Theatre four years later in November 1968.

Based on Coward’s music, the production starred Honor Blackman, John Neville and Farnworth actress and comedienne Hylda Baker.

Blackman was thrilled to receive a telegram from Coward on the first night. It read: ‘Please extend to the entire company my affectionate good wishes for an enormous success.’

Laurence Olivier watches wife Vivien Leigh rehearse in Manchester, March 1956

Laurence Olivier watches wife Vivien Leigh rehearse in Manchester, March 1956

Again, it was not to be. Mr and Mrs ran for 44 performances, closing on January 18th 1969.

The Palace Theatre enjoyed an unlikely link with Hollywood superstar Judy Garland in the 1960s.

She flew to Manchester in August 1964 with husband Mark Herron for the world premiere of Lionel Bart’s new musical Maggie May.

Judy Garland and husband Mark Herron backstage at the Palace Theatre, August 1964

Judy Garland and husband Mark Herron backstage at the Palace Theatre, August 1964

Based on the traditional ballad about a Liverpool prostitute, the show portrayed the life of streetwalker Margaret May Duffy and her sailor sweetheart. It was set against a backdrop of trade union and dockers’ disputes.

Garland recorded many of the songs from the musical herself and later performed them on stage with her daughter Liza Minnelli.

Maggie May transferred to London’s Adelphi Theatre in September 1964, but closed after 501 performances.

Noel Coward at the opening of two of his plays in Manchester, October 1964

Noel Coward at the opening of two of his plays in Manchester, October 1964

Finally, few Hollywood stars could rival the fame of showbiz couple Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in the 1950s. Both were in Manchester in March 1956 as Leigh was starring in another Coward play, South Sea Bubble.

Olivier sat in the stalls at the Opera House as Leigh took the stage. She starred as Sandy Shotter, the wife of the governor of Samolo – a British island colony in the South Seas.

Leigh left the production in August 1956 after the play had transferred to the Lyric Theatre in London. It closed at Christmas.