REVIEW: Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter” at Wokingham Theatre

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How would you react if you met your idol?

  • Stars (out of 5) = 3
  • One-sentence review= “I’d no idea you were like this; you’re wonderful!”
  • Good for people who= Think Noel Coward had the right idea when he wrote “Plot doesn’t matter, it’s ideas that are important”
  • Not good for people who= Regard the aforementioned quote as a shameless excuse for writing plays where nothing much happens.
  • Would Alan Bennet like it = You’d think he wouldn’t, but he probably would.

 I usually start theatre reviews by giving a brief summary of the play’s premise, and close the paragraph with a question about how relevant it is to modern audiences – the idea being that you’ll keep reading to find out the answer (as if my verdantly effusive prose alone were not reason enough…). But when a play jettisons plot in favour of a lighthearted depiction of celebrity, is it really worth seeing in the first place?

 “Present Laughter”, written by Coward in 1939 with the “sensible object of providing me with a bravura part”, is recognized as a thinly-veiled caricature of the author himself – “amongst the most shameless, if liveliest, self-addressed valentines in theatre history”, according to the New York Times.

 Gary Essendine (Steve Hall) is a world-famous stage actor who’s recently crested the hill of middle-age, and faces a downhill journey toward thinning hair and old age. Supporting him through the traumas of his existence (fan mail, incessant phone calls, morning-after disasters) are his devoted staff Fred and Miss Eirkson (Robin Newell, strikingly lascivious, and Claire Jacklin) and his secretary Monica (Emma Merchant).

 Set against this rock of support are the moths that flutter to the flame of his charm – who at the outset take the form of young admirer Daphne Stillington (Lily Andrew), although she is by no means the least of his admirers – and his manager and producer Morris and Henry (Daniel Williams-Brown & Jerry Radburn respectively), who endure his frequent tantrums and demands.

 There is a plot, which revolves around the intrigues of who secretly admires who… but really, the threadbare story exists as a clothesline ‘pon which to hang Coward’s impeccable writing and a series of comedic set pieces. 

 For this is indeed a funny play, passing my personal litmus test of “Will my girlfriend repeatedly shush me whenever I laugh too loudly?”  It’s a jolly good job that it is, too, for the 2 hour run time places a huge burden on the actors to keep us laughing all the way through.

 For the most part they succeed admirably, with Steve Hall’s Gary and Wiktor Kepa’s uber-fan boy Roland Maule in particular generating the bulk of the laughs. Against them, Rebecca Wire’s stoic Liz Essendine and Emma Merchant’s Monica Reid provide wonderful foils, as Gary’s long-suffering but ever-resourceful wife and secretary respectively. 

 The first half is arguably lacking in dramatic urgency, but the fault lays with the script – not a great deal really happens until the second half. Director Thomas Joy keeps things lively and engaging with some superb music and creative scene transitions, which ensures that the immersive spell of the play established by its stellar set design is never broken. He also takes the genius step of using the background characters’ background moves as a vehicle for additional silent comedy – I won’t spoil anything, but keep your eyes on the horse…

 Arguably one might read this review and think “Ho! 2 hours of watching rich people moan about their ‘problems’? I think not!” – but this rather misses the point. 

 If the play could be said to pose socially relevant questions, they would be “how much of a fool would you make of yourself if you met your idol?” and “are they really worth all the fuss anyway?” – which makes for an interesting study of the nature of celebrity and its consequences. 

 Less-serious types will simply say “Bah! All this Brexit stuff’s getting me down, I need a night of frothy entertainment” and head over to https://www.wokinghamtheatre.org.uk/how-to-book/, where they can book tickets for “Present Laughter” which runs at Wokingham Theatre from the 16th– 26thOctober.

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