Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring
As a critique of the sexual mores of its time (or, at least, of the time when it was first conceived: it didn't actually see a production until a tour in 1942 and a West End outing a year later), Present Laughter is acerbic, witty and unerring in its targeting of the follies and foibles of Garry Essendine and his circle. Whether it is the fausse ingénue Daphne Stillington, the somewhat loony precursor of the"angry young man" Roland Maule, the empty-headed Lady Saltburn, the predatory Joanna Lyppiatt or the totally self-centred Essendine himself, Coward's barbs never miss the mark.
However it isn't just barbs: beneath the exterior, Coward finds the characters' vulnerabilities and brings them to our attention with a great deal of subtlety, so that even Essendine's monstrous ego does not prevent us from feeling some pangs of sympathy for the man who, like the girl in the song, is stuck in a gilded cage. This sympathy is encouraged by the "normal" characters: secretary Monica Reed, Essendine's almost ex-wife Liz, and the sardonic valet Fred.
As for the performances and production values in this Theatre Royal, Bath, production, they are of a very high standard. As Essendine himself, Simon Callow, although perhaps not physically as one would imagine the great actor, is excellent, whether (over)acting for the other characters or revealing more than he would care to. As one would expect, his voice is his greatest asset, with a tremendous range and perfect clarity of diction. His facial expressions and body language, too, are well suited, whether striking a pose or unwittingly revealing a vulnerability he would prefer to keep hidden.
As his wife Liz, Jessica Turner is the perfect foil. Matter of fact and down to earth, totally aware of all his faults but devoted to him in spite of them, she - along with secretary Monica, played to great effect by Tilly Tremayne - keeps him grounded in the real world, alternately massaging his ego and pouring cold water on his excesses.
Lysette Anthony is excellent as the predatory Joanna and Robin Pearce handles the part of Roland Maule, who at times seems to have drifted in from a farce in the theatre next door, well, managing to avoid the caricature which the part invites. The whole cast, indeed, provide great support, with not even the slightest suspicion of a weak link anywhere, but it is Callow who carries the play, as Coward intended, but I suspect this was a rather different Garry Essendine from that given by "The Master" in 1942.
Paul Farnsworth's set is a joy: a wonderfully over-the-top, (almost) all white art deco Mayfair flat, including white piano, white leather sofa and gleaming white spiral staircase leading to Essendine's bedroom. It is appropriately and effectively lit by Gerry Jenkinson. The costumes, too, are spot-on, All in all, the production values are just as superb as the performances.
Just one thing niggles: great exploration of the menopausal male and the artificiality of a particular lifestyle though it is, it is so firmly set in its time that it does feel a little dated. That should not, however, put off prospective audiences: the performances alone are sufficient to guarantee a good night's theatre, and combined with Coward's often mordant wit, that's an evening hard to resist!
The tour goes on to Bath, Cambridge, Birmingham and Richmond
Reviewer: Peter Lathan