As London's skyline sparkles below, we're sipping champagne on the 38th floor of the Shard, the Renzo Piano-designed skyscraper that soars higher than any other building in the British capital (and in western Europe, for that matter). While the views from up here, through the floor-to-ceiling windows, are predictably incredible, with a sprawl of twinkling lights punctuated with illuminated icons like Tower Bridge and St Paul's Cathedral, we've almost forgotten they're there. Our attention, you see, is trained on a small ensemble of actors, who, just a metre or so before us, are rollicking through a classic 1930s Noel Coward comedy. Bristling with wit, repartee and exaggerated facial expressions, the performance induces trembling body parts, giggles and guffaws from the audience. It's fair to say the opening night of Theatre in the Clouds is a triumph.
Touted as "the world's most exclusive form of theatrical escapism", this new offering at Shangri-La at the Shard has seen the swanky five-star hotel link-up with Revels in Hand, a group of British stage actors who met at Cambridge University and are reviving the "lost" art of intimate theatre with private small-scale productions. In Shakespearean times, long before the vast Victorian and Edwardian playhouses mushroomed across London's West End, such plays were common, with thespians putting on special shows for royalty and aristocrats at their homes and palaces.
Theatre in the Clouds exudes a similarly cosy, upscale aura. Performances will, until January 2019 at least, take place one evening each month, for a maximum of 20 people (both guests and non-guests are welcome), in one of the hotel's signature suites. Tonight, in the London Suite, we're seated on chairs, placed in two rows, near the living room coffee-table and cushion-arrayed sofa. Although the decor is elegant and modern, with a melange of marble, silk and light wood, retro props, such as a rotary dial telephone and a wireless (radio) playing 1930s tunes like Fred Astaire's Cheek to Cheek, transport you to a bygone era, while the actors, sporting period costume, and well-to-do English accents, captivate from the off. You're close enough to clock the frowns and laughter lines, rolling eyeballs and wry glances, and, later, the delight (and other emotions) in their faces during their curtain call.
Tonight's cast receive two well-deserved rounds of applause as there's a double bill of (roughly 30-minute) Coward plays, Hands Across The Sea and Ways and Means, performed either side of a 15-minute intermission, when we're served more champagne and a delectable selection of canapes (such as smoked salmon with squid ink, mushroom in puff pastry, barbecued beef and sweet potato). We also have time to savour the bewitching night-time panoramas of London. For play two, we're ushered into the bedroom, which doubles as a French Riviera holiday villa. There's coffee and croissants on the king-size bed and actors in bath-robes and gowns.
The intimacy of Theatre in the Clouds extends post-performance, as all six cast reappear after a quick break to informally chat and mingle with audience members who've stuck around. It's quite a contrast to seeing actors sneaking out of back-stage theatre doors, shunning contact with fans who'd paid to see them on stage. One of this evening's star turns, Revels in Hand co-founder, Mel Fullbrook, tells me it's hoped Theatre in the Clouds can become a fixture at the Shard, though much will depend on ticket sales in the coming months. The next three dates will feature the work of London-born playwright John Van Druten, whose 1940s-set romantic comedies have been likened to Coward's own farces. With a cast as talented as this, in a setting as spellbinding as the Shard, they should be jolly good fun, too.
Steve McKenna was a guest of Shangri-La at the Shard.
A Theatre In The Clouds show and overnight hotel package is priced £685 ($1275), based on two people sharing. It includes a one-night stay in a luxurious room or suite at the Shangri-La Hotel, English breakfast for two at its TĪNG Restaurant and Lounge, and theatre tickets with champagne and canapes. See shangri-la.com/london
Show-only tickets, with champagne and canapes, are priced £85 ($158) a person. See designmynight.com