The inestimable Noel Coward is a safe choice for CFT to launch their 2018 programme. However, this production, directed by Sean Foley, has veered away from traditional roots of suave sophistication and smooth style, and chosen to go down a slapstick farcical route. This has been well trodden, or rather stumbled over, by the star of this Present Laughter, Rufus Hound.
This well-known comic actor and stand-up comedian gained true public recognition when he followed James Corden in One Man, Two Guv’nors (about to be performed in an amateur production in Petersfield) on tour and at the National Theatre. In build, demeanour and style, Hound is no Noel. At first that was disconcerting, but the manic mood of farce and quick wit soon prevailed, driving away all memories of mannered mischief, while retaining Coward’s clean dialogue and sharp dramatic lines.
The programme has kindly pointed out that Essendine is an anagram for Neediness, and that becomes all-apparent in Garry’s dealings with the constant stream of admirers and hangers-on, who are bound to hound many stars. Written in 1939 but delayed for three years because of the War, Present Laughter hangs loose on morals, with women keen to get Garry into bed. And the dress code for the evening involves mainly silk dressing gowns, another of Coward’s personal hallmarks.
The first seductress is young Daphne Stillington (Lizzy Connolly) who is eager to further her career on the stage, and in Essendine’s bed, having met Garry at a recent party. She appears one morning from a bedroom at the top of the stairs in a silk dressing gown, claiming she had to spend the night in the star’s home because she did not have her house keys.
From then on, doors open and close at rapid intervals, ushering people in and out of sight of one another.
A constant source of calm is provided by his ex-wife Liz Essendine (Katherine Kingsley), the only character who knows exactly what she is doing and what Garry wants, and needs. Another character who remains almost in charge of an ever-changing situation is Monica (Tracy-Ann Oberman), his secretary of many years, who has control of his diary – and most of his movements.
Into the giddy mix add his comic in-house staff, Fred (Delroy Atkinson) and Miss Erikson (Tamsin Griffin), who is ageing awkwardly; would-be playwright Roland Maule (Ben Allen); Garry’s theatrical promoters, Henry Lyppiatt and Morris Dixon (Richard Mylan and Emilio Doorgasingh); and a gorgeous temptress Joanna Lyppiatt (Lucy Briggs-Owen) who is married to Henry but seems to have bedded all and sundry.
Naturally, Coward is not content with pure physical farce, and the play is leavened with witty lines and real pathos as several of the characters reveal their frailties to Garry and their friends and colleagues. The whole performance works sublimely well in a great set (designed by Alice Power), with excellent timing for both the dialogue and the pratfalls. It will be a big surprise if this production does not end up in the West End, so get to see Present Laughter before it leaves Chichester on May 12.