Present Laughter

Noël Coward
Chichester Festival Theatre
Festival Theatre, Chichester

Katherine Kingsley as Liz and Rufus Hound as Garry Credit: Johan Persson
Tracy-Ann Oberman as Monica Credit: Johan Persson
Rufus Hound as Garry and Lucy Briggs-Owen as Joanna Credit: Johan Persson

This superbly crafted, intricate and cleverly involved play draws the audience in to a mixture of situations each feasible alone but seriously and ridiculously even more complicated than could be possible—or maybe not, considering that these are very theatrical characters.

It was written in 1939 and was ready to run when war was declared and Coward was sent to Paris with the purpose of running an ‘Enemy Propaganda Office’, so the first production was not until 1942 with a tour of the provinces before opening the next year in London with Coward in the part he had written for himself.

The role is that of flamboyantly theatrical matinée idol Garry Essendine reaching his 40th birthday and just beginning to doubt his allure. With thickening waistband and thinning hair, could he still appear as attractive and charming as before? Was Coward really applying these doubts to himself or were thoughts at the time of an oncoming world war concentrating his mind on the here and now? As the ‘fool’ says in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, “Present mirth hath Present Laughter” so enjoy each day to the full, which I’m sure Coward always did.

Alice Powers’s very cleverly designed set is of Essendine’s stylish apartment with elegant furnishings, including the essential drinks trolley, and a flight of stairs leads up to a gallery where there are two much-used bedroom doors and walls covered with pictures. The large portrait of Essendine keeps slipping sideways. Is this an indication of his state of mind? Not surprising as he never seems to be alone for a minute and each new visitor brings more problems.

Coward’s ‘light comedy’ has received some heavy-handed treatment in Sean Foley’s production and the dry, witty dialogue is all but lost in loud, raucous laughter, slamming of doors, overstated visual comedy and shouted arguments. The cast, though, are magnificent, working their socks off to achieve what is required of them while still dealing with reams of complicated and comical witty discourse. Timing must be a nightmare but they relentlessly keep up the pace without missing a beat.

I am really sorry to say though that this production, of a play I usually love, was a big disappointment to me, although those who enjoy farce probably love it. I hate things to be overemphasised as if we are not intelligent enough, or observant enough, to see the joke, but in spite of my misgivings there are some excellent performances, most particularly from Tracy-Ann Oberman as secretary Monica, the only one cool, calm and collected in the midst of embarrassing chaos.

There is some really comical bitching between Garry’s wife Liz (Katherine Kingsley) and manipulative friend Joanna (Lucy Briggs-Owen) and I laughed aloud at the expression on the face of Richard Mylan’s Morris who, in a drunken state, was constantly bewildered to find his champagne glass empty. Rufus Hound plays Garry, the focus of it all, and shows remarkable fluidity in his changing moods from reflective to anger, irritation, complacency, introspection and doubt—but ‘acting, always acting’.

The part of the show I found the most entertaining was the curtain call which became a song and dance number, in and out of all the doors, up and down the stairs, all expertly choreographed by Lizzie Gee, and the audience left the theatre each and every one with a happy smile of enjoyment on their face.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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