Written by Noel Coward in the doom-laden year of 1939, 'Present Laughter' was scheduled to open only days after the declaration of war. So the production was cancelled in the light of the gloomy political climate, but eventually opened in April 1942 at the Haymarket Theatre, alternating with another of Noel Coward's plays, 'This Happy Breed'.
I don't suppose that Coward's plays are to everyone's taste these days. In fact, while checking bags into the cloakroom before the performance, two theatre-goers were already getting separate cloakroom tags in the expectation that one of them might not make the second half. And in due course, there were several seats vacant near me after the interval. However, neither the quality of the writing, nor the standard of acting deserved such a derisory response, because the production values and the characterisations are all first rate and Coward's comedy stands the test of time, as long as you don't take the piece too seriously.
Alex Jennings has the exhausting task of describing Garry Essendine, a self-obsessed leading actor who basically doesn't know when he's left the stage. Approaching 40 (or perhaps already older!) he's in the throws of his 'mid life crisis'. Essendine lives in a seemingly well-to-do studio somewhere in London - Belgravia, perhaps. His needs are administered to by a trio of employees: the chain smoking Miss Erickson who seems to do the cleaning and cooking, Fred who acts as a kind of butler, and his secretary, Monica Reed. But even with these assistants at his disposal, his life is getting more complicated by the minute. Estranged from, but still good friends with his wife, Essendine is pestered by female admirers – one of whom has just spent the night in the spare room having 'forgotten her latch key'. If that wasn't enough, Essendine is also pestered by an odd ball playwright, Roland Maule, and his manager is having an affair with the wife of another business associate.
Tim Hatley's sumptuous set design encloses the entire Lyttleton stage and is impressive to say the least. It's all angles and mirrors with a carbon footprint which, with some 26 lights, would match that of a small town. Though the overal effect suggests opulence with a grand piano at centre stage, there's a clever indication of disorder as Hatley has placed books under almost every piece of furniture.
Since Coward anticipated playing the central role himself, it's hard not to imagine that there's something of his own persona in the part - at least that part of his character he was willing to admit to at the time. However in this version, Alex Jennings is more than a match for the role. Jennings sways around the stage in his dressing gown with the affected nonchalance of the archetypal 'luvvie' infatuated with himself and his own self-importance. When he rails against those who would impose order on his world or make undue demands on him, we realise his outbursts are insincere and merely an extension of his stage 'act'.
Sarah Woodward plays the long-suffering, unflappable secretary who's 'seen it all before', and Sara Stewart is the elegant wife who knows all her husbands foibles and is able to accept them. There's good support from Tony Turner as the affable working class butler who treats Essendine almost as a co-worker, and has an unpretentious and modern view of sexual relationships. Pip carter is the social oddity, Maule, who becomes creepily fascinated with Essendine. And Anny Tobin produced some highly amusing business with cigarettes, as the chain smoking cook with a penchant for seances.
Though 'Present Laughter' is a comedy, there's a dose of political significance in director Howard Davies' production, perhaps more so than Coward originally had in mind. For example, the radio in Essendine's studio presents news about the impending war, and though the accommodation seems glamorous and wealthy, it has a leaky roof representing perhaps a country which isn't quite everything it thinks it is or ought to be. And in Essendine himself, we recognise a character who can't face up to his responsibilities or to reality – indicative it would seem of the British government of the late 1930s.
At just about 3 hours in length, 'Present Laughter' might be a little long for some, but it never seemed to drag even though the format is somewhat predictable, bordering at times on farce. The characterisations and interplay between the characters more than make up for any deficiency in the plot, and overall it's an entertaining, amusing and well produced revival.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "There is still plenty of rueful, comic pleasure to be milked from Noël Coward's just pre-Second World War Present Laughter." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "A marvel of comic brio and farcical panache." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "The production still delivers the laughs." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "A repellent comedy, and Howard Davies's unexpectedly clunking production did nothing to change my mind...the impression remains that this is a botched shot at an overrated play." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, " I laughed; but sporadically."