PRESENT LAUGHTER. By Noël Coward. Directed by Fred Abrahamse with Patrick Ryecart, Kate Normington, Michelle Maxwell, John Maytham, Marcel Meyer, Dean Roberts, Jo da Silva, Matthew Baldwin, Skye Russell, Daphne Stillington and Nicole Franco. Set and lighting: Fred Abrahamse. Costume Design: Marcel Meyer. Theatre on the Bay.

KAREN RUTTER reviews

'Present Laughter' - Theatre on the Bay

Acclaimed for his unique wit and style, playwright and actor Noël Coward is generally credited with creating Present Laughter as a star vehicle for himself. “A series of semi-autobiographical pyrotechnics,” he called it. A comedic meditation on the merits of fame and celebrity (or perhaps the pitfalls thereof), his lead character is the fulcrum around which all others are balanced. And balance, itself, is an essential element in the play as the narrative teeters towards chaos, much of it brought on by Coward’s alter-ego and the reactions he provokes in others. It’s a light-hearted farce with a few pointed factors concerning success and its management, very much of its time (middle-ish 20th century) and still very much loved.

Large ensemble cast of characters

In Pieter Toerien’s production the lead role of Gary Essendine goes to London actor Patrick Ryecart, who clearly has a lot of fun with a part that must be a joy to play. His character is a famous actor, a self-obsessed womaniser who fears the onset of age.  He is about to leave for Africa (spoken of as a country) on a theatre tour, but preceding his departure he is plunged into a maelstrom of mayhem. It’s his own fault, for the most part – starting off with young Daphne Stillington (a delightfully plausible Skye Russell), who has happened to have “lost her latch key” (nudge nudge, wink wink) and ends up in the spare room at Essendine’s house – a spare room which, we learn, is frequently occupied by women who have “lost their latch keys”.

'Present Laughter' - Theatre on the Bay

Essendine’s estranged wife Liz (wonderfully played by Kate Normington) watches the proceedings with some amusement, while his long-suffering valet (Dean Roberts), eccentric housekeeper (Jo Da Silva) and feisty secretary (the ever-professional powerhouse Michelle Maxwell) deal with the fallout. However, things start to get even messier when Joanna (dashing Nicole Franco), wife of Essendine’s producer Henry (John Maytham in full-bodied voice) and mistress of his manager Morris (a dapper Marcel Meyer) also “loses her latch key” one evening. Apart from dealing with all the women in his life, Essendine is also confronted by young playwright Roland (amusingly played by Matthew Baldwin), who announces his obsession with Essendine and his work. Things reach French farce proportions when several of the actor’s fans announce they want to come to Africa with him.

We don’t want to give anything way, so we’re not going to tell you how it ends. But suffice to say, the cruise to the climax is what this comedy is all about. And it’s a truly mad, at times even eccentric journey.

Comedic build up of tension

Director Fred Abrahamse keeps a nice lid on things, allowing for the pressure to build but never letting it get completely over the top – until it is really necessary, of course. But it is in this comedic build up of tension that the fun really happens, and what comes across is the enjoyment of a happy director and cast working together. Also, mention must be made of Meyer’s striking and stylish costume designs, which totally suit each character.

'Present Laughter' - Theatre on the Bay

Just one niggle, and it has nothing to do with the director or cast – the script just seems a little disproportionate in places. Essendine gets the lion’s share of lines, which is as it is – but some of the characters have to scramble for space, and in this production it seems a waste of great talent. Just sayin’ …

Coward wrote Present Laughter in 1939, just before WWII, and the humour is of this period, designed to get maximum laughs out a farcical situation. It was first staged in 1942, by which the time the war would have started and, no doubt, Coward’s play was welcomed as light relief in a dark time. Such is its popularity that it continues to be a frequently-performed piece worldwide. And this Theatre on the Bay production is a fabulous addition to the ranks.

What: Present Laughter

Where and when: Theatre on the Bay from 16 February to 10 March 2018

Book: Computicket

WS