Director Stephen Unwin’s production of Noel Coward’s Present Laughter is never quite as nimble as it should be, but its shortcomings are well camouflaged in an expensive looking piece buoyed by some sparkling performances.
With a slight and often unfocused plot, this isn’t one of Coward’s strongest plays, relying too often on ramping up the comic chaos that surrounds egotistical actor Garry Essendine (Samuel West) at the expense of anything like a compelling story. This tactic is pretty hit or miss – very funny when it does work, but too often meaning the stage is cluttered with characters, many of whom are instantly forgettable or drawn in ridiculously broad strokes. The famous Coward wit is thinly spread – there are some great lines, but they are often awfully far apart. The pacing is also problematic: the opening scenes drag, only really taking flight when West’s self-regarding, slightly-past-his-prime actor appears, energising the other performers. The first half is overlong, and sabotages the wilful Joanna’s arrival (one of the production’s strongest scenes) by prefacing it with an unnecessary (there’s no set change) and unnecessarily long curtain lower that half the audience thought was the interval, so triggered an exodus for the bar – this meant some of the play’s best repartee was partially obscured by the muttering of confused playgoers shuffling back to their seats.
The piece is redeemed, however, by the universally engaging cast, with not a weak link among them. West employs exactly the right amount of roué charm to make it believable that he holds so many people in his sway, and he’s surrounded by a raft of strong female performances, each a slightly different foil. Phyllis Logan is an acerbic delight as his long-suffering assistant, while Rebecca Johnson is pleasingly brisk as the wife he never quite got round to divorcing. Sinuous, sly and dressed to kill, Zoe Boyle is an absolute scene-stealer as the unrepentant adulteress Joanna. The rest of the cast do sterling duty, albeit in often underwritten roles.
Designer Simon Higlett’s lushly decorated set and the gorgeous period wardrobe give this the feel of a Sunday night TV show, and in truth it’s a theatrical version of that: exquisite escapism with high production values. While it’s a safe production of undemanding fare, it’s also hard to imagine anyone leaving without thinking they got their money’s worth.