Muddy Reviews: Present Laughter, Theatre Royal, Brighton
I wasn’t expecting to get belly laughs from a play written in the late 1930s, even one by Noel Coward, but I did. Present Laughter, on at Brighton’s Theatre Royal until Saturday, and starring Downton’s Phyllis Logan (aka Mrs Hughes), is a comedy that, in the right hands ages very well.
The story concerns famous actor Garry Essendine. Everyone wants piece of Garry, be that romantic admirers, obsessed fans or a series of correspondents seeking charity appearances or introductions to the world of theatre. He is alternately praised by sychophants or brought down by the aserbic wit of his fond but long-suffering secretary and estranged wife.
Used to a string of young women who ‘lose their latchkey’ and end up staying overnight at Garry’s kind behest, his wife turns from eye rolling to action when one such nocturnal visitor seems to threaten the theatrical company she and several friends have a stake in.
What is acting and what is not is part of the theme of the play: “I’m always acting, watching myself go by,” claims Garry at one point, yet to his frustration he finds his overblown dramatic quotations are taken as from the heart while his honest imploring is seen as fakery.
Coward, who originally played the lead character admitted there was an autobiographical element to the egotistical but likeable Garry. The role in this current production is taken by RSC actor Samuel West, familiar for his appearances in TV’s Mr Selfridge and The Hollow Crown II and on the silver screen in Howards End and more recently Suffragette and The Riot Club.
Garry’s secretary, Monica Reed, a master of cutting one-liners, is played by Phyllis Logan best known for well-loved housekeeper Mrs Hughes in Downton Abbey.
As you’d expect from Coward, verbal sparring forms much of the meat of the play and it is well delivered by West, Logan and Rebecca Johnson as Garry’s wife. It’s a wordy play with a torrent of lines to learn, for West in particular, and delivery is slick and convincing with exchanges bouncing naturally off each other.
I also enjoyed Sally Tatum as eccentric servant/Scandinavian spiritualist Miss Erikson who has more than a touch of Julie Walter’s Mrs Overall about her.
There’s an element of farce throughout but this really builds in the final act, getting big laughs from the audience. Garry has, another character observes, an unfortunate knack of letting people down in a way that doesn’t sound final. When a series of visitors arrive in quick succession all laying claim to Garry in different ways the spare room gets much use as people are forced to hide from each other.
There’s a detailed period set with a spiral staircase at its centre (Garry appearing dramatically from above) with effective lighting creating streaming morning sunlight or lamp lit evening. Scene changes take longer than most modern productions, causing a little confusion, for me at least, as to whether or not we’d hit the interval.
Present Laughter was ready for the stage in 1939 but its debut was delayed by four years when Coward was unexpectedly recruited overnight to help the wartime Bureau of Propaganda in Paris.
73 years on, you can catch it in Brighton this week only.
Present Laughter is at the Theatre Royal, New Road, Brighton, every evening until Sat 13 Aug, with additional matinees Thurs and Sat. 0844 871 7650 atgtickets.com