The new Theatre Royal Bath revival of Noël Coward’s Present Laughter, which first premièred in 1943, is extremely faithful, and thanks to Stephen Unwin’s perfectly judged direction, celebrates the true spirit of the frothy drawing room farces Coward made his own. Following on from Theatre Royal Bath’s exceptional handling of Hay Fever starring Felicity Kendal in 2014, there is something terribly reassuring about the well trodden formula of a Coward play. Relying almost entirely upon well delivered dialogue and strong chemistry, a revival is only as good as the cast and thankfully this is another staging that is almost certainly destined for a West End run.
It’s impossible not to be taken out of yourself by the shallow Garry Essendine, a Thespian who has recently turned forty and fears that he is past his prime. Wonderfully embodied by Samuel West in myriad silk dressing gowns, Coward’s thinly veiled self-caricature, written with the “object of providing me with a bravura part”, makes for a terrifically egotistical protagonist who is entirely oblivious to the world outside his own domain, even in the ominous year of 1939 when this play was both written and set. Perhaps judging the public’s need for escapism at the height of WWII, Coward doesn’t include so much as a mention of politics – his heroes and heroines are far more interested in orange juice, telephone calls, love affairs and the next play.
Present Laughter is often described as Coward’s funniest work and you can certainly see why; even the characters refer to events as being akin to a French farce, with all the action taking place in Garry’s house over a period of a few days as he prepares to travel to Africa, and is a series of (often hilarious) comings and goings. ‘My worst defect is that I am apt to worry too much about what people think of me,’ Garry bemoans, to all intents and purposes, an updated version of Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, and it seems likely that designer Simon Higlett, who has used a set similar to that in Hay Fever, chose to place a life-size Singer-Sargent-inspired portrait of the character at the top of the sweeping staircase in order to reflect this.
But whereas the degeneration of the painting was symbolic of Dorian Gray’s downfall, Garry’s emanates from seriously underestimating the various women in his life; from his long-suffering secretary Monica Reed, a part which Phyllis Logan makes the most of with perfectly timed observations; his remarkably tolerant wife, Liz (Rebecca Johnson), with whom he no longer lives but appears to still respect, to the young women who unwisely choose him to be the object of their passion; the naive young Daphne Stillington (Daisy Boulton) and the flame-headed Joanna Lyppiatt (Zoe Boyle), the wife of his friend Henry (Toby Longworth). Both women lose their latch keys and have to spend the night in Garry’s spare room – nod, nod, wink, wink – while he, vampire-like, remains predictably dismissive of his conquests the following morning.
Everyone in Garry’s life, including the geeky stalker playwright, Roland Maule (Patrick Walshe-McBride), is dedicated to serving him, but we all know, as we hurtle towards the conclusion, that he can’t sustain this selfish way of life for much longer, and the audience respond with considerable appreciation when Monica, Daphne and Joanna each announce that they have purchased a ticket to accompany him on his imminent voyage to Africa. West, whilst not an actor I would have immediately placed in such a frivolous role, delivers a memorable performance that easily fills Coward’s shoes as he grapples with how best to extricate himself from his loyal band of followers, while the feisty Boyle, maternal Logan and highly amusing Walshe-McBride are equally strong at illustrating their exasperation at Garry’s non-compliance. An uproariously entertaining evening was had by all and one that (as I imagine it did in 1943) succeeded in making everyone forget the present day political turbulence long after they left the theatre.
Present Laughter at the Theatre Royal Bath until 9th July 2016. Running time approximately 2 hours 30 minutes including an interval. For more information and tickets visit the website.