Present Laughter: Noel Coward's masterpiece lead by brilliant Samuel West
27 Jul 2016
Perhaps it takes a serious classical actor steeped in the plays of Chekhov and Shakespeare to really take a comedy part by storm.
Last night’s audience at the Arts Theatre – packed to the gunnels surprisingly for Noel Coward's Present Laughter – were ready for some first class fun and Samuel West handed it out in spades. West, veteran of the Old Vic and a director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, breathed new life into this late Noel Coward drawing room masterpiece.
What could have been a slightly dated play turned into a galloping romp with a modernist twist, packed with sexual innuendo and acid wit.
Noel Coward wrote the part for himself; he wanted a play where he would dazzle as the central role, the core of the plot. As he said himself, 'I can take any amount of criticism as long as it’s unqualified praise.' It was in short supply when he began writing Present Laughter (the title’s a quotation from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, ‘Present mirth has present laughter, What’s to come is still unsure.')
And when he wrote the play the author’s future was uncertain. Coward, the darling of the 1930s West End had ridden a wave of success with his plays Hay Fever. Private Lives and Design for Living, but had hit a barren patch with a couple of flops and with the Taxman knocking on the door for unpaid bills, he was set on a success to fend them off and restore his reputation.
Strangely, its first night was interrupted by intelligence work for the British government, which took Coward away abroad for more than three years, doing propaganda for the Allied war cause and raising funds for the troops. When he returned home, his country house was occupied by troops and his London flat bombed. Nevertheless he premiered the long-planned Present Laughter in Paris and, although it wasn’t an immediate hit, he later thought of it as one of his best works.
It’s easy to see why. Samuel West did Coward proud in this production as the feted actor Garry Essendine, always in control of every situation, cynical about women, a people pleaser with a restless streak. The play opens in Garry’s flat when a young 24 year old who has stayed the night with him has to be charmed out of the building to make way for Garry’s string of business appointments and rival women friends.
The dialogue is sharp and funny as Garry, indulges himself like the star he is, annoying his faithful secretary and exasperating his even more faithful separated wife. Coward more or less claimed that Garry was him, but a more perceptive Sheridan Morley the famous theatre critic thinks that, 'if Present Laughter is in the end about anything very philosophical, it is surely about the price of fame and the cost of charm.'
The Arts Theatre production is no one-man show, however. Phyllis Logan, Downton Abbey’s Mrs Hughes, was unrecognizable but equally striking as Garry’s long suffering assistant – a brilliant foil for many of Garry’s egoistic lines and Daisy Boulton as the ingénue Daphne Stillington was outstanding – she wants to save Garry from the clutches of Joanna Lyppiatt the woman Garry is having an affair with played with huge panache by a very beautiful Zoe Boyle. Butler Martin Hancock brought an intriguing earthiness into a play essentially about the upper classes, whilst the maniacal Miss Erikson, Sally Talum, brought a Scandinavian Mrs.Overall to glamorous life.
Yes, many of the cast are stars and that does pack out any theatre, but the evening was sparkling, provocative and enjoyable and should we ask a Noel Coward play to dig any deeper than that?
Present Laughter is on at the Cambridge Arts Theatre through July 30.