Present Laughter – May 2018

Experience: 6/10

By Noel Coward

Directed by Sean Foley

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Friday 11th May 2018

This was a disappointing start to the CFT season. Steve and I have enjoyed Sean Foley’s productions before, particularly A Mad World My Masters, while Rufus Hound’s performance as Sancho Panza in the RSC’s recent Don Quixote was simply superb. Sadly, in combination with the writing talent of Noel Coward, the whole became much less than the sum of its parts. Sean’s reliance on visual gags and physical clowning to get the ‘jokes’ across indicated that he either wasn’t aware of Coward’s wit or didn’t know how to direct it properly, and while Rufus can connect really well with an audience, he seemed to be struggling with some of the dialogue: the brilliant line “I’m so terribly terribly sorry, it’s a wrong number” generated nothing in the way of a response. (It’s usually the funniest line of the show, in our experience.)

The set was OK, though not the best we’ve seen for this play – given the thrust stage, a number of changes had to be made for the play to work. The set was on two levels, with the front of the stage a couple of steps down from the rear portion. The (invisible) fireplace was centre front, with only the fire seat and instruments present. A large rug covered the middle of this area, with a couple of very low Art Deco-style chairs to the left, on either side of a small table. The drinks trolley was on the upper level behind these chairs, and the space behind that led to the main entrance at the back. On the right stood the sofa with coffee table in front and side table with telephone on the left. Two doors behind the sofa led to the kitchen (left) and office (right), and there was an old-style radio between them.

The stairs curved up from the centre of the upper level to the right of the balcony, which went all the way across and housed the piano on the far left. The centre door led to Garry’s bedroom, while the spare room’s door was beside it to the right. The balcony wall was covered with pictures and posters from Garry’s many successes, including a large portrait hung beside his bedroom door, in pride of place. There were other furnishings which added to the effect, making the flat looked slightly cluttered but comfortable. The auditorium was fairly full, and we were sitting in the front row to the left side.

The request to turn off mobile phones was done in an apt way: they played some music from the period which was muted for a bit while an RP-accented voice told us to switch off our phones. The play itself began with some jazzy music, and then there was an announcement on the radio about a play in three acts. We didn’t get to hear the whole announcement, as a gloved hand crept out from the kitchen door and turned the radio off abruptly, which got a laugh. Almost immediately, the guest room door opened, and Daphne (Lizzy Connolly) emerged, wearing pale silk pyjamas. She giggled her way downstairs and launched herself onto the sofa, so she could use the phone to call her friend. Her accent was just about believable, but her braying laugh was straight out of the over-the-top school of acting. (Mind you, others found her performance reminded them of people they knew, so perhaps I’m a bit limited in my experience of posh young ladies.) Her laughter followed just about every line, so it was a bit grating, but at least she brought us up to speed – the dialogue was pretty clear throughout.

Miss Erikson (Tamzin Griffin) came out of the kitchen and doddered across the room, showing no surprise or concern about finding a young person in Garry’s flat first thing in the morning. Her head shook a bit as well as her legs, but it was kept within reasonable bounds: this is Chichester after all, and an elderly audience might not take too kindly to gratuitous laughs at their expense. Fred (Delroy Atkinson) and Monica (Tracy-Ann Oberman) turned up, also unconcerned by the visitor, and Monica in particular was completely unfazed by Daphne’s missing latch key explanation. Her line “I gave up that sort of thinking in the spring of 1922” got a laugh, but otherwise it was a slow start.

With Daphne out of the way in the guest bedroom, Garry (Rufus Hound) made his first appearance, still in pyjamas and looking slightly rumpled. He slammed his bedroom door in his temper at being woken up early, and the portrait on the wall swung sideways – no laugh. He came downstairs, and while Monica reminded him of Daphne’s presence, he checked out his hair using a tray as a mirror. When he needed to tidy himself up before bidding Daphne a fond farewell, he used the tray and the (invisible) mirror over the fireplace to check his bald spot, which was funny.

Daphne soon returned, keen to talk to Garry about their future life together, and she was very put out when he insisted on going through his goodbye routine with her. She attempted to throw herself on the sofa, but fell off onto the floor – got a laugh – but although Rufus did his best, he wasn’t able to get the required variations into his performance, which was coming across as very monotone. It was moderately funny, and we could see that Garry had done this many times before, but overall this section lacked some of the detail which other actors have achieved in the role.

With Daphne off for her bath, Monica came through with the day’s correspondence. She used an American accent when talking about the Sylvia Laurie letter, which Garry dropped into the waste paper basket on the right side of the sofa, and soon he was heading off upstairs for his own bath. There were phone calls, and then Liz (Katherine Kingsley), Garry’s wife, arrived with presents for Garry and Monica: she’d been in Paris checking up on a play. Miss Erikson wandered deliberately between the two women, collecting trays and cups, and then going between them again on her way back to the kitchen, which puzzled me at first, but then I realised she was hoping to get a present as well – no chance. It was a bit distracting, as both women paused their conversation while she doddered past them, twice, and I could have done without that bit of staging.

Daphne, dressed in her evening gown from the previous night, came downstairs shortly afterwards. She was stunned to meet Mrs Essendine, not realising that Garry was still married, and left Monica standing holding her wrap while she turned back, several times, to speak to Liz on her way out. It’s an old gag, and even raised some mild laughter tonight. Following her departure, there was more conversation, mostly between Liz and Garry. She wanted him to stop gallivanting around with young women, and he resented being told what to do. He had started the team’s careers and provided a source of income for many years, and he felt they owed him a debt of gratitude and should leave him alone to do whatever he chose. Liz pointed out that ‘they’ – meaning the production team of her, Morris and Henry, together with Monica – had stopped Garry from making some bad decisions in the past, including preventing him from playing Peer Gynt. Her accusation that Garry was over-acting was the last straw: Garry summoned Monica from the office and demanded to know if she had ever seen him overact. She confirmed that she had and that he was doing it now, which brought him down to earth a bit.

After dealing with that topic, Liz brought up the subject of Morris, the producer of the group. She’d discovered that he might be in love with Joanna, Henry’s wife, and wanted Garry to have a frank discussion with Morris to find out how far the relationship had gone. Garry agreed, under protest, and this was where they arranged the coded signal: if everything was OK with Morris, Garry would call Liz, and when she answered, say “I’m so sorry, it’s a wrong number”, while if there was a problem he would say “I’m so terribly sorry, it’s a wrong number”. They established this very clearly, and while this middle section had gained very few laughs, at least the audience had been given all the information it needed for the later scenes.

Just before Liz left, Roland Maule (Ben Allen) arrived, looking like all the other Roland Maules we’ve seen before – do they clone them? Earnest in attitude, with curly hair on top, glasses, a knitted top under his jacket and completely wound up with nerves, this was the one performance which would have fitted very nicely into a standard production of this play. His nervous, braying laugh was perfect – the man was clearly unhinged in some way. His handshake was very strong too: Garry, Liz and later Monica winced at this greeting, a choice which neither Steve nor I can remember from previous productions.

Miss Erikson was on stage for the early part of Garry’s conversation with Mr Maule – don’t know why, but she actually kept still for once, back left – and I don’t remember when she headed off. Perhaps she didn’t have enough time to get back to the kitchen after letting the visitor in? Anyway, the discussion with Mr Maule went as usual: his oddness came out very well, and I reflected that it helped his character if the others on stage were as ‘normal’ as possible (Garry’s tantrums excepted) as it shows up Mr Maule’s peculiarities much better.

Mr Maule said a very emphatic “no” when Garry offered to return his script, causing Garry to cringe, another funny bit, and then he left just before Henry (Emilio Doorgasingh) and Morris (Richard Mylan) arrived. This led to some more conversation about their theatrical arrangements, including some funny bitching about an actress named Beryl Willard. With the topic turned to casting, Henry, the moneyman, decided to head off – he had a business trip to Brussels – leaving Garry with the perfect opportunity to tackle Morris about his relationship with Joanna. After some huffing and puffing from Morris, who wasn’t about to take a finger-wagging from Garry without getting in a few finger-wags of his own, Garry made a long speech about the importance of their group and the trust they’d developed over the years. That done, Morris seemed to accept the situation, and the act ended with Garry smiling happily as he informed the person at the other end of the phone that he was “so sorry, it’s a wrong number.”

To some light applause, the lights dimmed, Morris stayed on the stage for a bit, and they played some jazzy music while the cast (and crew, presumably) changed the set. There wasn’t a lot to do, and when the lights came back up, Miss Erikson was putting on her coat to leave for the evening. Since she wasn’t available, another hand (without glove) came out from behind the kitchen door to turn off the radio announcement for the second act. Miss Erikson left, Garry was sitting at the piano upstairs, and Fred came out from the kitchen, also about to head off. Garry came down to have a chat with Fred – we learned about his love interest, Doris, and a bit about Miss Erikson’s clairvoyant friend – and then Fred left Garry on his own.

Settling down on the sofa with a drink and a book, Garry was interrupted almost immediately by a call from Liz, which let him give us the background to his evening. He had been to dinner with Morris and Joanna, come back to his flat ALONE, and was heading for bed. After ringing off, he was about to do just that when the doorbell rang. Surprise, surprise, it was Joanna (Lucy Briggs-Owen), the woman we’d heard so much about but hadn’t yet seen. And even more of a surprise, she’d forgotten her latch-key! We settled in for an entertaining scene.

We’ve enjoyed many of Lucy’s performances at the RSC, but she looked so different all glammed up that I hardly recognised her. Short black hair, a slinky black dress and elegant legs which went on forever – we know because she flaunted them constantly – meant that she fitted the Joanna profile perfectly, and with her talent as an actress, we were confident that this scene wouldn’t disappoint. And, to be fair, it was better than much that had gone before: with fewer opportunities for sight gags and slapstick, they had to concentrate on delivering the lines.

Joanna showed off her legs quite a bit during their conversation, easy to do when your evening gown has a long slit up one side. When they were sitting on the sofa she drew her dress to one side to reveal the full length of one gorgeous limb: Garry responded by drawing his own dressing gown up and revealing his trouser leg, at which Joanna laughed, silently. These two sexual predators (not as bad as it sounds) prowled around each other for a while, and then Garry decided to give in to his animal urges, and they went upstairs to his bedroom. The picture swung to one side again when he closed his door. Lights. Interval.

The second half began in the same way as the first – jazzy music, announcement on the radio, cut short of course, and an attractive young woman coming downstairs from the guest bedroom wearing a pair of silk pyjamas; only this time it was the experienced Joanna instead of the naïve Daphne. Given her connection to Henry, the reactions from the other characters were different too, apart from Miss Erikson, that is. She simply responded to Joanna’s comments as if nothing out of the usual was happening, while Fred was clearly surprised and a little shocked, and Monica dropped the parcel she was carrying.

When Liz arrived, Monica answered the doorbell and was able to warn her in advance, so she was her usual calm, unflappable self. She confronted Joanna once they were alone – Joanna’s bitching about Monica was rude and insensitive, so we found Monica’s responses quite funny – and told her bluntly that she (Liz) knew about Joanna’s affair with Morris. Joanna denied it at first, but when Liz explained that she’d talked with Morris about it and he’d freely admitted the whole thing, Joanna turned away and mouthed a silent but very obvious “fuck”.

Liz’s threats to tell Garry, Morris and Henry about Joanna’s activities finally worked, and Joanna agreed to keep away from Garry until he left on his trip to Africa. With that, she scarpered up the stairs to the spare room, while Fred showed in Mr Maule. This ‘appointment’ was a surprise to everyone, although he claimed that he had spoken to Garry the previous evening and arranged the meeting. He was shown into the study to wait, with Liz and Monica being very careful not to shake hands with him again.

Before anyone else arrived, Liz checked up on the telephone arrangements in the flat – the spare room had a separate line with a different number. With this established, Liz headed off upstairs to confer with Joanna, leaving Monica to return to the office where Mr Maule was apparently doing something reprehensible.

Garry was not only up but dressed, and tried to sneak out while the coast was clear only to be intercepted by Morris. (They’d largely given up answering the doorbell now, and characters simply walked in to the flat at will.) Fred gave away the fact that “the gentleman’s in the office and the lady’s in the spare room”, and Morris was determined to get the latest fling out of the way before having a heart-to-heart with Garry. Naturally Garry, not up-to-date with the latest events, wasn’t keen to let Morris near the spare room, but fortunately Liz came out just as Morris was banging on the door and saved the day.

Morris confessed to Garry about being in love with Joanna, and said that she had left him the previous night and now he couldn’t find her. Liz covered by saying that Joanna had stayed the night with her, using the two-line phones to fabricate a conversation between Joanna (at ‘Liz’s flat’) and Morris. Mr Maule came back in at this point, and refused to leave, while Henry, not expected back till later, also arrived at the flat looking for Joanna. Having already checked at Liz’s place, he was surprised to be told that Joanna was apparently there, and Liz had to fob him off with “there’s a reason for that, I’ll explain later.” Another phone call to ‘Liz’s flat’ calmed Henry down, and then the final visitors of the morning arrived: Lady Saltburn and her niece, Daphne Stillington (as in Daphne from the first act).

Lady Saltburn (Carol Macready) was decked out in a fur coat, while Daphne was more suitably dressed in daytime wear. As introductions were made, Lady Saltburn shook Mr Maule’s hand, making him shriek with pain, which got a laugh. Daphne went through her piece – the same poem which Garry had recited to her earlier – while the others sat or stood about in patient resignation, apart from Mr Maule, who was thrilled by the whole thing, and Lady Saltburn, who had absolutely no idea of the underlying situation. Finally Joanna emerged from the bedroom in her evening gown, complaining of the cold and demanding a taxi to take her home. Liz offered her car: Daphne, in shock, blurted out the instructions about the chauffeur, and then fainted as Joanna swept out.

There were a few attempts at clapping at the end of this scene, but they soon stopped. The humour in this section had been much more physical again, with lots of co-ordinated head movements (Liz and Monica) and spraying of drinks and soda everywhere. For some inexplicable reason, Lady Saltburn jiggled up and down vigorously in her armchair when Joanna came out of the spare room, evidently enjoying the interruption, but expressing that enjoyment in a very strange way. Some of this physical humour got in the way of what is a very funny scene, with the actors noticeably working to get into the right positions for these little ‘accidents’, but overall they got the dialogue across well and set us up nicely for the final act.

Lots of ‘stuff’ was brought on for this final change, including trunks, suitcases, a tall stack of envelopes (“that mad woman in Herne Bay”), extra booze and a series of balloons attached to weights which stood about the place. There was also a large “Bon Voyage” sign across the right-hand side of the balcony rails. After the usual announcement, Monica and Garry went through some correspondence, which was entertaining, and then she left him alone for the evening. He tried to get a conversation going with Miss Erikson, who took a large number of cigarettes from the box – with permission – and talked a bit about her friend’s mediumistic abilities, but eventually she left as well, and he was on his own again and decidedly restless.

The first visitor to break into his solitude was Daphne, complete with suitcase. Her reference to Joanna being a prostitute got a decent laugh, and she set up the template for the scene – she was going with him to Africa, had booked her cabin that afternoon, etc. – so it was no surprise when Mr Maule came along with his suitcase and the same story. Daphne had been persuaded to go into the office when the doorbell rang, so that left the spare room for Mr Maule, who sprinted up the stairs and locked the door to avoid being evicted.

The final unexpected guest was Joanna, who let herself in. This was too much for Garry, who made the telephone call which should have been such a highlight (see above) – no response, apart from our (rather faint) chuckles. Liz turned up soon after this, throwing her coat over Garry as she walked in, and put in a good strong dose of common sense, after which Morris and Henry arrived together, extremely angry – Joanna had left Henry a note explaining what she was doing.

The staging had already increased the amount of physical ‘comedy’ in the early part of this act, with a balloon refusing to be ‘accidentally’ popped by Garry’s casually held cigarette and Mr Maule spraying biscuit crumbs everywhere when he spoke. These hadn’t generated much laughter, with the reaction to the biscuit-spitting decidedly mixed. Even so, the cast upped the level of physical gags for this last section, with more drink-splashing (some laughs) and balloon-popping (eventually, but no laughs). The best bit of comedy came when Joanna was leaving. She squared up to Garry, having carefully removed her gloves, and looked all set to slap him in the face but kneed him in the balls instead – well done! His high-pitched voice afterwards was reasonably funny too.

Of course, it did undercut Garry’s next line, which in a regular production shows that he’s completely and immediately forgotten about Joanna in his outrage over Henry arranging a theatre deal which he, Garry had expressly forbidden. This familiar bickering indicated that no lasting harm had been done by Joanna’s meddling, and Henry and Morris soon left to get what sleep they could before the next day’s journey. Liz stayed, and made it clear that for the sake of the ‘firm’, she would be coming back to live with Garry. When she mentioned putting a note in the office for Monica, Garry suddenly remembered that the office and the spare room were occupied, and suggested they go back to Liz’s flat instead. She grasped the situation, and the two of them kissed – she removed his party hat first – before sneaking off to the main door. A final kiss and pose, and the lights went down, but not for the end of the show, as it turned out.

They came on and took their bows, to reasonable applause, with Rufus coming on last and up on the balcony. Then they went into a closing number, a Noel Coward song called Why Do The Wrong People Travel?, which had featured in another show he’d written. It was a good number, with “Chichester” either in the original lyrics or inserted in a suitable place – always helps to keep the locals happy. As the song drew to a close, they made their way to the various exits, and that was that – only the “Bon Voyage” sign remained lit at the end.

This was a tolerable performance: the cast are very talented and experienced, and may well get the piece working better now they’ve been left to their own devices. We haven’t been put off Sean’s work at all: he simply needs more compatible material, and he may even do some of Coward’s work quite well, given that the Master wrote in so many styles. Rufus would probably have benefitted from a more experienced director, but I do think the part prioritises acting skills over comedic talent.

And there was one final benefit from this production – we both found ourselves harking back, with great fondness, to the National Theatre production of 2008. Happy memories.

© 2018 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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