Present Laughter @ National Theatre, London

cast list
Alex Jennings
Lisa Dillon
Sara Stewart
Sarah Woodward
Jessie Burton
Pip Carter
Paul Chesteron
Mark Elstob
Amy Hall
Hilary Hamilton
Frances Jeater
Anne Kavanagh
Nick Malinowski
Tim McMullan
Anny Tobin

directed by
Howard Davies
In recent years there has been a radical reassessment of Noel Cowards plays, revealing the subtext of disillusionment and darkness behind the glamour and glitter of his light comedies.

Notable revisionist productions of Design for Living and Howard Davies’ 2001 Private Lives, for instance, have highlighted the modernity of Cowards sexual ambiguity and understated subversiveness.

Now Davies presents a new interpretation of Present Laughter, with partial success. While he loads the play with a socio-political weight it cannot sustain, the show still flourishes as highly entertaining comic romp with an underlying melancholy.

The play revolves around the antics of ageing stage matinee idol Gary Essendine (a part originally played by Coward himself). A narcissistic playboy, he demands to be in the limelight both on and off stage, with the adulation of audiences extending to a gushing stream of one-night stands with his more attractive young female fans.

Garys estranged wife Liz with whom he gets on much better now they live apart and who still fondly looks after his interests and indulgent domestic staff flutter around him like moths over a candle. Exasperating and demanding he may be, but they dont seem to be able to resist his charm. However, when his anonymous affairs are in danger of changing to an intimate relationship with his managers wife Joanna, events threaten to veer out of control.

There is plenty of barbed comedy on offer here, but Davies makes the mistake of setting it in the context of the outbreak of World War Two. True, the opening of Present Laughter was delayed by three year due to the start of the war, but the play does not really reflect this historical background. In this production, radio news of the time is broadcast between Scenes 1 and 2, and Gary later switches off the radio after the announcement that Germany has invaded Poland. The ideas is to suggest that the exclusive, self-obsessed lifestyle which he and his circle enjoy is coming to an end, but there is nothing in the text to justify this intrusion.

What does come across strongly though is the looming emptiness behind the mask of mirth. Gary cuts quite a pathetic figure in that because he is always acting he remains essentially alone. But in a sense he is also a truth-teller : he may seem to have no moral principles but he is not a hypocrite, as he exposes the intrigues and shatters the illusions of those around him.

However, the play is first and foremost a deliciously bohemian comedy, with Cowards ingenious stagecraft and witty dialogue is done full justice here. In designer Tim Hatleys split-level, luxurious penthouse apartment, with huge vanity mirrors and plush sofas, Gary and his entourage indulge in increasingly outrageous and farcical behaviour, expertly played by the cast.

Alex Jennings gives a masterpiece of comic timing in his effortlessly charismatic portrait of Gary, as he tries to escape the consequences of his own misdemeanours. His theatrical display of self-pity is hilarious though there is also a hint of genuine sadness beneath the greasepaint.

Sara Stewart makes an elegant and poised Liz, coolly sorting out the mayhem and subtly suggesting real affection for her miscreant husband. Sarah Woodward is very amusing as Garys long-serving, long-suffering secretary Monica, with her sardonic comments and seen-it-all-before face. Lisa Dillon is a feline femme fatale Joanna, playing games of sexual power. And Pip Carter is extremely funny as the navely earnest Roland Maule, a wannabe playwright cum creepy stalker, besotted with Gary especially after Gary has torn apart his dramatic pretensions surely a cri de coeur from Coward himself, who always treated serious matters with a deceptively light touch.

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