Present Laughter – Richmond Theatre, London

Writer: Noel Coward
Director: Stephen Unwin
Reviewer: T. L. Wiswell

Incipient environmental disaster, fanaticism, human rights abuses – isn’t it nice once in a while to go to the theatre to escape the horrors of the world rather than to see them reproduced on stage? It is in hope of a night of entertainment that a production of a Noel Coward play shines like a beacon in the night, and Present Laughter warmly delivers an evening of laughter and cutting wit. Just add a glass or two of prosecco and one can forget about the world’s cares for a few hours (two hours and forty minutes to be precise).

Aging star Garry Essendine (Samuel West) is at a turning point in his life. While he’s at the peak of his career, his age is starting to get ahead of his philandering, and his philandering is getting in the way of, well, his ability to get the beauty sleep he needs now more than ever. He’s surrounded by good friends, including his semi-estranged wife Liz (Rebecca Johnson), and has a household staff who firmly understand his peccadillos while trying to gently scold him into better behavior. Garry, meanwhile, attempts to use wit and charm to get everything his way, while never seeming to be able to stop acting; this makes a treat for the audience as he slips in and out of actor mode while the other people on stage either call him on it or are utterly fooled.

Turmoil arrives not as Garry stares in the mirror and contemplates the end of his youth; no, it’s a break in his inner circle, as the extraordinarily glamorous Joanna Lyppiatt (Zoe Boyle) appears to have strayed from her husband Henry (Toby Longworth) – Garry’s producer – and into the arms of Garry’s manager, Morris (Jason Morell). But is she really just fishing for Garry? Can this trio of tight friends withstand this kind of upset? Do any of these people have any kind of morals at all, and does the audience actually care if it’s all played for laughs?

With a lead character inspired by Coward himself and admirably played by West, it’s impossible to not be sucked in to the onstage hijinks (even if it’s hard to believe a stage actor living in a glamorous flat in Sloane Square with a household staff of three). Not only are the leads played note-perfect, but the various minor roles are amped up to a level that keeps the onstage energy at a fever pitch. In fact, it’s possible that the lesser characters ought to be dialed down, as the various traits and tics were becoming distracting. Housekeeper Miss Erikson (Sally Tatum), with her wild clothes and talk of spirits, seemed like she’d been dropped in from a different play; but with the rock solid secretary Monica (Phyllis Logan) and Mrs Essendine – both of whom make jokes but seem much more rooted in reality – the show is reined in from turning into pure farce.

Overall this show felt a wee bit dusty. The characters seem to be stock types from any Noel Coward play, and while the dialogue is fun (especially for theatre buffs), it’s not at the level of his best works. It is, though, solidly performed by the kind of casually excellent actors once comes to expect to see on the British stage; so if a night of forgetting about your troubles is what you crave, Present Laughter should deliver as promised on the tin.

Runs until August 6 2016 | Image: Contributed

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