A last minute change of plan meant that I was able to make a sneaky booking for Mrs Chrisparkle and me to see this touring production of Present Laughter, which I’d had my eye on for a few months but couldn’t see how to schedule it in. I’m extremely glad we did, because it’s an elegant, classy, sophisticated and intelligent production of a play that neither of us had seen before. I read a number of Coward’s plays when I was about 15 years old, and this was one of them; and I remember at the time that it really didn’t jump off the page for me. I could see how it was an account of the trials and tribulations that beset light-comedy-actor Garry Essendine, but, unlike all the other Coward plays I read at the time, I found it heavy-going. So I was very interested to see how a decent production would make it come to life.
I don’t think there was ever any pretence, since the play first hit the boards in 1943, that its protagonist Garry Essendine is Noel Coward. He wrote it as a semi-autobiographical frippery purely to give himself a star role. Many of the other characters are based on members of his “set” (makes him sound like a badger), and Essendine’s constant inclination to overact or underempathise reflects Coward’s own intolerance and impatience with his celebrity status, which you sense drove him mad with its interminable impingement on his freedom but without which he would have been bereft.
In brief, over the course of a few days, the actor is at the centre of a (largely self-induced) whirlwind of activity that includes two women throwing themselves at him, coping with the relationship indiscretions of his closest friends, beating off the advances of a young playwright hopelessly obsessed with him, and facing the no-nonsense discipline of his secretary and his ex-wife, all whilst he’s preparing to take a company of actors on a tour of Africa. At times it’s quite gentle comedy, at others almost Feydeau-esque in its farcical deceptions.
All the essential requirements of an impeccable Coward production are here. Simon Higlett’s graceful set comfortably accommodates all the exit and entry points needed for the farcical elements, whilst reflecting Essendine’s immaculate taste in all the furnishings and accoutrements of fine living. The costumes are beautiful; indeed, I rather hankered after the smart dressing gown that Liz bought Essendine in Paris. A proper piano; very comme il faut. The spiral staircase direct to Essendine’s boudoir adds a touch of extravagance. When can we move in?
Stephen Unwin directs his hugely enjoyable cast at a smart pace, encouraging everyone to get meaningful characterisation out of even the minor parts, thus providing a superb backbone to support the main characters. For example, Martin Hancock as Fred, the valet, is brilliant at bringing out all his egalitarian cheeriness, naturally offering his rightyo’s and be good’s to everyone in his orbit, no matter their estate. Sally Tatum brings the house down with her self-contortions and Scandinavian impishness as the psychic housekeeper Miss Erikson, as does Patrick Walshe McBride with his slightly unhinged, slightly menacing interpretation of the appalling Roland Maule; two roles that could so easily descend into mere caricature, but here performed with perfect judgment to present real people out of these nightmare creations. Toby Longworth’s Henry is a delightfully blustering idiot who loses his cool magnificently when he thinks Essendine is having an affair with his wife; Jason Morell is hilarious with his over-reactions to… well, to anything; and Elizabeth Holland brings some splendid dignity to her don’t put your daughter on the stage Mrs Worthington moment.
At the heart of the production is an immaculate performance by Samuel West as Garry Essendine. As with some of the smaller roles, it could be easy to go over-the-top and caricaturise Essendine as a merely waspish spoilt brat and arch manipulator. But Mr West digs deeper into the character and reveals someone with whom you can actually have a lot of sympathy; he presents Essendine’s weaknesses with a hint of affection, so that, although he certainly isn’t more sinned against than sinning, the dividing line between the two isn’t quite so clear as you might think it is. Essendine’s characteristic switching between (in)sincerity and acting is intelligently but mischievously handled by Mr West so that it’s hardly surprising that Daphne hilariously misinterprets his intentions; an excellent performance.
Daisy Boulton’s Daphne is wide-eyed and toe-curlingly in love with Garry and is wonderfully easy fodder to his patter and pretence. Rebecca Johnson is first rate as his wife/ex-wife (you choose) Liz, with a fine blend of hard-nosed toughness to keep Garry out of trouble and an indulgent forgiveness of his misconduct. Zoe Boyle gives a great performance as the bed-hopping Joanna, allowing the mask of steely self-assurance to drop perfectly when she’s cornered; and there’s a wonderful performance by Phyllis Logan as Essendine’s much put-upon secretary Monica, protecting him from the worst excesses of his own behaviour with all the warmth and understanding of a senior Matron who’s seen it all and didn’t like much of what she saw.
Impeccably performed throughout, the play still has insightful observations to make about the nature of celebrity, loyalty and pretence versus reality. It’s not Coward at his most searing, but it still has great entertainment value and we both really enjoyed it! This Theatre Royal Bath production continues to tour to Cambridge, Richmond, Brighton and Malvern until 20th August. Go see it!
Production photos by Nobby Clark.