The opportunity to see old and new forms of theatre side-by-side is one of the things that makes London so interesting. In neighbouring playhouses you can see centuries old versions of Shakespeare or Greek tragedy set in either their traditional or modern era, while right next door can be cutting-edge new writing that in technique and presentation dispenses with all accepted theatrical forms. And debate rages between those who feel the West End is stuffed with ‘safe’ classics that attract an older audience and those objecting to noisy new-fangled pieces designed to entice a new generation to the theatre.
Tried and tested plays are a staple of Britain’s theatre landscape, and are as necessary to the popularity and survival of commercial theatre as new writing. During the interval of Present Laughter making at pit-stop at the Richmond Theatre during its national tour, a fellow audience member described the play itself as ‘terribly out-dated’, and this seemed to me not only as an entirely unfair statement about a play that in our celebrity-obsessed world still strikes a rather pertinent chord, but also as a criticism that is only ever levelled at our poor inter-war playwrights like Coward and Rattigan writing about the upper-middle classes. And the same people who yawn at the ‘dated’ nature of this play also baulked at the ultra-modern update of Faustus by Jamie Lloyd and Branagh’s cinematic Romeo and Juliet, so what can you do?
Whether a production feels stale entirely depends on how relevant its themes are to the way we live now or how innovatively its scenes are reimagined for modern audiences, and actually has far less to do with the language of the play then you might suppose. No one would ever say that Shakespeare was dated, or Chekov (as the fascinating transfer of Platonov, Ivanov and The Seagull have proved at the National Theatre), or even now Arthur Miller (as the searing A View from the Bridge and the recent No Villain showed), yet no one still speaks in the ways their characters do, if they ever did. Coward’s plays may look and sound a million miles from who we are today but, like Jane Austen, they are filled with biting satire and deep reflection on the nature of personality and social interaction. Certainly productions may be overdone or made to feel a little dusty as a recent production of Hay Fever did, but this version of Present Laughter from the Theatre Royal Bath is a sharp, sophisticated and fiercely relevant comment on star players, ego and community.
Garry Essendine is a famous actor who recently turned 40 but is unable to throw off his more insalubrious habits such as seducing devoted young women and promising them eternal affection…until he wakes up the next morning. As the play opens Daphne has spent the night and the ever theatrical Essendine is trying to get rid of her amidst a crowd of callers including his ex-wife, his producer and other fans. As the actor prepares to depart for a six-play tour of Africa, he is bombarded by demanding visitors – from wannabe actresses, star-struck writers and other men’s predatory wives – while his poor secretary tries to keep him on the straight and narrow.
There are very few actors who are worth an hour’s travel but Sam West is certainly one of them and his Garry Essendine is a delightful combination of frustrated petulance and wild self-love, a public figure exhausted by his own image. He complains bitterly that everyone around him is either acting a part or endlessly intriguing, before switching in and out of various romantic characters himself to rid his living room of whoever is in his way, while engaging in numerous affairs. Although the show builds to a farcical conclusion as Essendine balances his multiple women, West brings out the darker side of Garry’s life, producing a physical pang when Daphne describes him as lonely.
And through that we see the character become far more than a light comic lothario and instead West makes him a man constantly surrounded by people but emotionally alone. Suddenly his nightly exploits become more about his own fears and emptiness than a callous disregard for the women he attracts. Yet West balances this perfectly with the role’s humour and while we see so much more to this Essendine than we initially expect, he remains a crotchety, complex and ultimately selfish man caught up in a mess of his own making – a finely nuanced and utterly enjoyable performance.
The people surrounding Garry are equally entertaining, part support network and part parasites of his fame. Downton’s Phyllis Logan as the seen-it-all secretary Monica Reed is particularly effective as she attempts to guide her star-employer through his appointments while raising a cynical eyebrow at his latest conquest. Logan has a nice partnership with Rebecca Johnson as the estranged Mrs Essendine who makes every attempt to keep Garry out of trouble and clean up after him while retaining a best-friend like confidence.
Of the mistresses, Zoe Boyle is excellent as the predatory and unashamed Joanna Lyppiatt, the snooty and arrogant wife of Essendine’s producer Henry. In many ways Boyle’s Joanna is clearly a female-version of Garry, unconcerned by the havoc she wreaks and it seems entirely appropriate that eventually the two of them would connect. But she also clearly has her own drivers to be a recognised part of their set and to get whatever she wants regardless of the consequences. Of the male roles, Patrick Walshe McBride’s Roland Maule, the young writer who connives at a chance to meet his hero, is the only one hitting a false note with a performance that is too broad for Stephen Unwin’s subtler take on this play.
Simon Higlett has created a traditional but beautiful set, dominated by a spiral staircase and a Dorian-Gray-like painting of Essendine which hangs over proceedings on the upper level. It’s an easily missed but pointed statement about the relationship between youth and fame, and the hero’s behaviour has much to do with fears of ageing. Again, some may call Higlett’s approach ‘old-fashioned’ and it would be fascinating to see a stripped-back version of Coward, but rather than just create a pretty vision, a good set should reflect both the themes and characterisation of the play which Higlett’s certainly does, and its tone of showy-chaos gives plenty of additional visual clues about the nature of Essendine and his lifestyle.
So is Present Laughter outdated, well no actually, it has as much to say about the fawning nature of celebrity now as it did in 1939. Our gossip columns are full of Garry Essendines dating a string of younger women and having tantrums aplenty, while messageboards, comments sections and Twitter accounts are full of the Daphnes and Rolands who adore them. Investment in the talent and star-power of one individual certainly hasn’t gone away, and Coward’s mature and wonderful play reminds us that behind the celebrity there is still a complicated human being who wants to be worshipped and left alone, who needs to be managed but thinks they can cope without it, and who both loves and resents the impositions of fame. Traditional though it maybe, Unwin’s production and West’s superb performance finds new resonance in Coward’s writing, and while we may clamour for the new in London, there should still be a place for the old if they’re as charming as this.
Present Laughter is a Theatre Royal Bath production currently on national tour. Having just completed its Richmond Theatre run, it moves to the Theatre Royal Brighton for its final week (8-13 August).
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