Present Laughter – Review

Phyllis Logan & Samuel West in Present Laughter. Images Nobby Clark
Phyllis Logan & Samuel West in Present Laughter. Images Nobby Clark

I’ve always been curious as to what life is like married to an actor, say a great, Olivier Award-winning, actor.

Do they bring their work home with them? Do they slip into character over their cornflakes or, worse, in bed? How do you know when they’re being honest and sincere and not spouting Shelley or Shakespeare? Do they ever stop performing or do they try to impress the shopgirl on the till in Tescos?

Garry Essendine, Noël Coward’s monstrous, egotistical, mysoginist in Present Laughter doesn’t seem capable of turning it off. I doubt whether he even remembers what it is like to not act. Surrounded by sycophants and stalkers, every word and gesture plays to the gallery.

The Theatre Royal Bath’s stylish but uneven production of Present Laughter has set out on a national tour, with its first stop Milton Keynes Theatre, where it opened last night.

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This isn’t the frothy Coward whose trademark wit has caused many a comedy to sparkle.

You can picture Coward sitting down at his typewriter and firing off Present Laughter after a particularly tiresome day. He may have written the central character for himself but he’s not entirely likeable or pleasant.

If Essendine is Coward then Present Laughter reveals his resentment at the price of fame. The comedy is more subtle than we’re used to as he attacks the downside of success. Yet actors, the profession, and its fans are not painted in the best light.

Coward’s protagonist, Essendine (Samuel West looking debonair in a series of sumptuous silk dressing gowns), is an actor at the top of his game. A man idolised by all for his charm, huge talent, good looks and suave personality.

He has the most enormous ego. At one point he is described as a sun around which others orbit and it’s true. He considers himself the centre of a very small universe, providing light, work and warmth to those who bask in his shadow.

Present Laughter

His life is not his own. His off-stage world is densely populated with a supporting cast of a secretary, an almost ex-wife, a couple of would-be lovers, a lunatic fan, producers and a couple of eccentric domestics.

His home is like Piccadilly Circus with a constant stream of visitors and doorbells and telephones ringing. It’s not surprising he throws several diva-like strops.

But, the truth is that he wouldn’t have it any other way. As much as he rails against his manic lifestyle, he’s lost, lonely and all at sea when left for just a few minutes on his own.

Director Stephen Unwin’s first half is surprisingly flat but it gets considerably brighter, pacier and funnier after the interval. Even one of the characters describes it as a French farce and you can see where she’s coming from.

The production is wonderful to look at, West is doing a fine job with a huge number of speeches that are delivered at a lick (although there are a few fluffed lines), but it fails to really ignite. Is it that we find it so hard to care about any of these people? Or that there’s little depth in the story or its characters?

We meet everyone (and what a rum bunch they are) as they sweep into Gerry’s gorgeous London apartment (Simon Higlett working his magic once again with a stunning set design) but the audience is left in the dark as to where the plot’s taking them. Is this a Coward comedy or something more serious? Should we be laughing?

In truth there isn’t much of a plot. Essendine is planning a theatre tour to Africa and his last days in England are spent fending off an irritating nutter, women, angry men and a pincer movement from secretary Monica (Phyllis Logan with the best, waspish one-liners, all immaculately delivered) and Rebecca Johnson’s Liz, Garry’s never-quite-divorced wife, who both want to keep him safe.

Garry’s problem is that the looks are fading, he’s fast approaching his 40th birthday, and he’s still using a well-thumbed script to break the hearts of one-night stands.

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Perhaps it’s their mothering instincts but Monica and Liz try, without any great success, to head trouble off at the pass and make the errant actor grow up.

Titian-haired Zoe Boyle, wearing the most fantastic green velvet frock, vamps it up as she makes a play for the leading man but even her man-eating charms fail to impress the harassed star.

It is unlikely Spider will ever return to the cobbles of Coronation Street but it is lovely to see Martin Hancock in a strong supporting role as Essendine’s well-dressed and cheeky valet, Fred.

Towering egos, overacting throughout, and wonderful characters called Daphne, Cynthia and Roland. It can only be Coward – but not at his very best.

Present Laughter runs at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday.

Review Rating
  • Present Laughter
3

Summary

Monstrous egos, vanity and temper tantrums and waspish put-downs. It can only be Noël Coward. Theatre Royal Bath’s Present Laughter goes back stage to spotlight the life of an actor.

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