Present Laughter – January 2008


By: Noel Coward

Directed by: Howard Davies

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Tuesday 22nd January 2008

Now that I’ve seen this play a number of times, I realise the main interest in seeing it again is the fantastically different performances by the leading man. We’ve seen Simon Callow, Donald Sinden and somebody else (I wasn’t doing these notes then), and each time the lead actor brings a different emphasis, along with accumulated baggage, most of which enriches the performance. Alex Jennings contributed a more youthful Garry Essendine, one close to the age claimed by Garry, which made his character seem more in touch with reality. He still covered the character’s wide emotional range (or tantrums) beautifully, and there was a nice touch for those of us who remember Alex Jennings’ Peer Gynt some years ago, with Garry being so thankful that his friends had saved him from playing that part. All the performances were perfect, and I enjoyed myself immensely.

I did find the set and staging a bit off-putting, though. Having checked the program notes, I accept that the play itself was written in the run-up to WWII, and that it would have been staged in the West End had the war not broken out just before the opening, but I don’t find any references to the war in the play itself. In fact, if they had been in the early stages of WWII, would Liz have blithely suggested that Joanna spend a month in Paris? Maybe she wanted her to fall into the German’s clutches, as that would have solved all their problems. Or would Joanna actually have gone, only to return a week later because she misses Garry, rather than to avoid those terribly non-U Nazi storm troopers? And the references to what food is available for breakfast take on a different connotation: rather than suggesting a haphazard Bohemian lifestyle, they simply imply that rationing had bitten early. And the biggest elephant in the room was the tour to Africa – that would have been completely disrupted by the events being announced on the stage radio, never mind by Garry’s obsessive lovers (and Mr Maule, who may want to be one of these lovers).

The set contributed to this sense of the play not quite fitting the mould made for it. Previous productions have used immaculately designed and decorated sets, against which Garry struts his stuff like a peacock. This set was an exaggerated triangle, thrusting quite far back on the stage, and giving more of the Bohemian effect. The walls were painted in a turquoise blue scumbled effect, the sofas and tables were well-worn and old-fashioned, and with the various throws and rugs, it wasn’t actually easy to see, when Garry posed himself on the sofa, which bits were him and which bits were the throws. For someone who likes to play the peacock, this was beyond understated. It also made it hard to spot the change after the farewell party – the place looked much the same, just a few extra bottles which took time to spot. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the references in the dialogue, I might not have noticed. All the luggage seemed part and parcel of the general studio setting as well, so extra bags arriving didn’t build up that sense of pressure that I normally get with the final scene. Despite this, the acting was superb from everyone – the central part is so dependent on the rest of the cast to pull this one off – and there was one lovely piece of business during the third scene. When Daphne is doing her recital, she loses the words at one point (not specified in the text), and everyone else, including Miss Erikson the housekeeper who pops her head through the kitchen door, prompts her. This adds to Daphne’s embarrassment, as it’s another reminder that she’s not the first and won’t be the last to have a fling with Garry. You can certainly count us in for another go.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

One comment on “Present Laughter – January 2008

  1. […] benefit from this production – we both found ourselves harking back, with great fondness, to the National Theatre production of 2008. Happy […]

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