Writer: Noël Coward
Director: Stephen Unwin
Reviewer: Kris Hallett
Another night another West. The night after Timothy West climbed the mountain of Lear for the fourth time in his career, his son Sam takes up the gauntlet with his own bravura stage role as Gary Essendine in Noel Coward’s Present Laughter. It’s an old-fashioned barnstorming leading role; hardly off the stage; the supporting characters in thrall to him; written to ensure he comes across as the smartest, wittiest and most desirable character on the stage. Noel Coward had a habit of writing himself great parts (if you’ve got it flaunt it) but none have quite as much look at me puffed up bravado as the preening actor.
It may be a relic from a previous era but is an enjoyable evening with West clearly having a ball in the role. Too often that clipped Coward tone, full of style and whimsy, can defeat lesser actors but that is not an issue here. West embraces the arch tone and finds humanity and a sense of the absurd in the role of a star actor preparing to go on a tour of North Africa and getting himself into business and romantic entanglements. His management team want to book him into an unsuitable theatre for his Autumn West End run, he wants to play Peer Gynt but keeps being booked in soulless but commercial savvy work, a young wannabe playwright and a young ingenue quickly become besotted and he soon finds himself in the welcoming arms of the wife of his business partner
It is as artificial and as full of fluff as it comes but I have to admit to having a real love for this kind of work when done well. Early on Essedine advises a playwright to learn his craft ‘write 20 plays in a row and if you’re lucky your 21st may get a reading’, and Coward’s understanding of the craft of playwriting should still be studied as a teaching tool today. He builds the play up, building up his bridge of cards carefully and methodically before sending them all tumbling down in the final act. There is a knowingness to it all ‘I feel like I’m in a French farce’ is uttered at one point as a woman hides behind the door of her lover as her husband turns up at the door.
It’s West’s show but the summer season in Bath always has strength in depth. It may be Essedine who dominates but Coward shows it’s the women who keep order in the world. Phyllis Logan – the stand out Mrs Hughes in Downton Abbey – plays another women who keeps the house in order as the actor’s personal secretary, ensuring all the pieces on the chessboard of her employee’s life are kept constantly in motion, while Rebecca Johnson as his wife, separated but still the moral strength behind the great man’s façade plays the role with a lovely understated energy. Zoe Boyle sizzles like the best femme fatale as the vixen in the mix; as she slips off her coat to reveal a stunning evening dress below she glimmers, it’s little wonder it doesn’t take much encouragement to encourage a tryst upon the sofa.
Stephen Unwin steps out of the way of the play and allows it to weave its own magic in Simon Higlett’s detailed and chic apartment set. You’ll know going in if this is your kind of production or not, it’s a fluffy silly piece writ large with West coming across as a natural heir to the Coward crown.
Runs until 9July 2016 and then tours | Image:Nobby Clark