Of all Noel Coward’s gifts, perhaps the greatest was the one he was able to offer himself. In fact this was not one gift but two. As Coward the writer he could regularly present Coward the actor with leading male roles perfectly suited to that artiste’s range and abilities. This performer could reciprocate by offering the author a talent that might have been designed with his witty and socially perceptive dialogue in mind. If Noel was directing into the bargain, then this present giving became positively profligate. Everyone was happy, particular if they were the Master.
Take this one, Present Laughter, coming at the end of the fraught and nervy decade which gave up the ghost just as the world was taking up its weapons. It was also the closing shot in a series of comedies (Hay Fever, Private Lives, Design For Living) which were outwardly scintillating but inwardly fraught and waspish. In this respect they have often been taken as a true gauge of their creator’s condition at the time.
This can perhaps be described as distractingly witty, the jokes seeming to push away inquiries about such vexing things as the philosophy, psychology and, please, sexuality of the principal, ever Cowardian figure.
By the time of Present Laughter, the last glittering knot in this string, Coward has all too clearly twigged such perceptions of himself and, with a bold perversity, invests the character of Garry Essendine – an actor, what else – with a social manner indivisible from his stage persona. With knowingly broad parody, Garry can only emote with any conviction when he is sounding, and presumably feeling, like a classical lead shouldering single-handed the burden of whatever drama has entered his life. The trouble is, of course, that he requires the lines of others in order to express whatever it is that he wants to express, with the result that, rather like an existentialist anti-hero from thirty years later, he neither can nor will attempt to give an account of himself when left to his own devices.
It is by nailing this loquacious dumbness that Samuel West, as Essendine, is able to spring the play’s slightly inevitable surprise to best effect. I hope I’m not wrecking this process by saying that at some point Essendine must tire of the social response to his offstage hamming, and must despair of his statements being dismissed when finally, passionately, he is being as serious, sombre and unscriptedly sincere as it is possible for a man of his training and temperament to be. West is not only playing Essendine but, by virtue of the playwright’s enduring presence, he is also playing Coward playing Essendine. This much is underlined by director Stephen Unwin’s faithful period take, full of clipped elocution and the sheer gormlessness of the English uppermids and lower aristos eyeing up the high hurdles of romance.
The whole enterprise brings out more depth of plotting than the play is often credited with. Beneath the sitcom top line of an actor charmingly plagued in his home by beautiful young women (all claiming to have mislaid their latch keys) run currents of vicious marital deception and sexual infatuation involving Essendine’s supposed best friends and professional allies. Being serious, Coward/Essendine seems to say, is a serious business; sometimes it is almost as serious as comedy, although it will probably never catch on as an alternative.
At the same time the production shows how embarrassingly inappropriate Coward could also be; nowhere more so than in the portrayal of Roland Maule, an aspiring young playwright inexplicably injected into the play as a sort of observer or anti-chorus figure.
Daisy Boulton and Zoe Boyle shimmer as edgily as the epoch as the rival girls Daphne and Joanna, while Phyllis Logan and Rebecca Johnson foil them admirably as the mother figures (one the secretary, the other the nominal wife) in Essendine’s unliveable life. Truly mature work from West (Timothy and Prunella’s son) as the actor afflicted with offstagefright. What would Coward have made of him? He would surely have offered recognition, but nothing too literal.
Review by Alan Franks
Samuel West and Phyllis Logan star in Present Laughter by Noël Coward.
Directed by Stephen Unwin.
Actor, charmer and diva, Garry Essendine is determined to disregard his advancing years and receding hairline by revelling in his endless tantrums and casual affairs.
But just as he is about to depart for Africa, he finds himself besieged by a bevvy of would-be seductresses, not to mention his long suffering secretary, his estranged wife and an obsessed young playwright. As he attempts to disentangle himself from their clutches and demands, the humour escalates, accompanied by delicious dialogue and sparkling repartee.
Samuel West (Notting Hill, Mr Selfridge, RSC’s Hamlet) stars in undoubtedly one of Noël Coward’s funniest plays as he looks at life behind the theatrical curtain and reveals a world of glittering wits, dashing dressing gowns and ostentatious personalities.
Phyllis Logan, best known as the housekeeper Mrs Hughes in Downton Abbey and Lady Jane Felsham in Lovejoy, will be joining the cast of Present Laughter playing Monica Reed, Garry Essendine’s acerbic secretary.
Theatre Royal Brighton
Booking 8th to 13th August 2016
Book Tickets for Theatre Royal Brighton