Noël Coward does what every writer wishes they could do – he immortalises himself to his own and other’s approval. Essendine is a successful but aging actor who over the course of the three acts encounters many a lady suitor keen to spend the night in his spare room, the simple requirement of which is a conveniently misplaced latchkey. He battles off these women, has a young playwright obsess over him, laments often and loudly to his ex-wife and secretary, and mopes around in dressing gowns. By his own admission, Essendine is Coward as an exaggerated persona and the classic stereotypes wedge their way into the discussion – actors and their lust and appeal, the tartness of the British artistic class, the savage ‘darkness’ of Africa, a clear image of Coward’s court of sorts was established. Written in 1939, but held off production until 1942, the play’s first showings cast Coward as the lead, and received raving reviews, with many calling it the best comedy of its time, a true treat for the context of the times. Later productions did just as well, and the play has made as much of a name for itself as say Twelfth Night, with the title of the former deriving from a song in the latter – ‘present mirth had present laughter’.
Last night was not only the first production by 00 Productions, but also my first time watching Coward’s Present Laughter in any capacity, a treat a higher power has truly been saving for me. At the risk of forcing you to believe that the curtains being blue and East Asian in origin underlies the rampant appropriation of the Second World War years, there is substance here. Mirth or amusement is expressed with laughter and being present is perhaps a reference to the constant nature of the setting, the literal presence of constant entertainment in the play or the volatile nature of life that demanded attention at each turn lest it be the last (an emotion only the rise of Fascism and the deterioration of negotiation tactics, could have ushered).
Octavia de Clare was a delight to watch, sulking, complaining and winging her way into our hearts with sardonic comments – her casting as the actor Gary Essendine, in a gender non-conforming but quirky touch, was commendable. Elise Busset as Monica Reed, and Robyn King as Joanna Lyppiat, add to the list of outstanding and memorable performances, both bringing life to a caricature of a creature, with comedic ease and a subtlety lacking in other performances (playing Roland Maule, Luke Richardson would do well in an IT sound along, but even better with more consistent a manic laugh).
Present Laughter was written alongside This Happy Breed, featuring topics like loss, the return of troops, concerns about social justice and its place in the post-war world. To understand is to correctly identify, which is creating difference. This was a play that dealt with issues distant from those of the upper middle and upper classes, subject matter that Coward was unenviably devoted to. It was played on alternative nights to Present Laughter, as the playwright hoped that it would offset the comedy with a somber mood, bordering on provocation of critical self-thought. The material does not overlap, but the juxtaposition is glaring and exactly what makes it appropriate for the time. The production last night was imaginative, unhindered and therefore made for an enjoyable albeit fidgety two hours. The sounds crew personally attacked me with each shrill phone ring but the constant flurry of characters and activity kept me entertained. Imogen Strachan seems typecast as the beautiful and simple character, encouraging affection, and so does aptly as Daphne Stillington, while Liz Essendine is the perfect wife to a man like Garry, with Imogen Front assured, confident, assertive and equally understanding. After many years of companionship, the two are expected to have a certain degree of ease, and though the actors tried their best, the relationship had a forced edge to it. And I don’t think I’ll ever get used to actors in position while the audience files in (and maybe I don’t want to, because there is no rulebook on what to do if you make eye contact).
My plus-one (the emerging winner of a death match for the spot) appreciated the costume design and 4D water works. She also commented on how the music preceding the show and that played during the interval were ‘songs of the 60’s’ and not suitable to the period in question. The artistic license in this case escaped us, but we are still looking for answers. Call us.