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Present Laughter

The Noël Coward Collection
BBC Video
(2008)

This play can be regarded as something of an oddity, being a semi-autobiographical farce. Strangely, it probably works slightly better in informing us about the life of The Master than it does in amusing with its clunky characterisation.

Donald Sinden plays Garry Essendine, a distinguished theatrical gent who has a very high regard for himself but spends much of his time plagued by the problems of others.

In this, he is supported by two doughty women, his ex-wife Liz, on this occasion played by a droll Dinah Sheridan and the secretary who is closer to him than any wife, Gwen Watford in the role of Monica Reed.

For 2½ hours, Garry prepares for a long trip to Africa, while getting involved in his own and others' affairs, in every sense of that overused word.

His visitors include a pert ingénue played by a very young Belinda Lang, a toothy madman grotesquely portrayed on stage by Julian Fellowes, and a well-dressed threesome. They are his producer, Henry, manager Morris (Ian Gardner and Michael Fleming) and the woman that both of them love, Elizabeth Counsell's Joanna.

Gary's home/studio is busier than Victoria Station in the rush-hour as this crew, along with a couple of stage servants, rush in and out causing mayhem.

In the first half of Alan Strachan's production, filmed on stage before an appreciative live audience at the Vaudeville Theatre in 1981, everything feels over acted with the story line of little consequence.

It is however redeemed to a fair extent by a wonderfully dry performance from Miss Counsell enjoying herself as a woman seeking to seduce her third man in a week.

Things come together better after the interval when any slight subtlety gives way to farce, which fits better with the acting style. With Sinden sprinting up and down stage, mugging all the while and unsavoury characters hidden behind most doors, the play finally builds to a comic crescendo.

When Present Laughter was revived at the National Theatre with Alex Jennings in the Coward role, it felt like a weak example of the writer's work. While there are some amusing moments, and it occasionally gives an insight into the stresses of being a great man at this stage, this adaptation confirms that the play does not show him at his best.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher