FringeReview UK 2016
Sam West fresh from his Chichester Young Chekhov season (which continues at the NT without him) slinks naturally into Coward’s self-parody: Garry Essendine. Theatre Royal Bath’s production of Present Laughter directed by Stephen Unwin and designed with busy, gorgeous naturalism by Simon Higlett and memorable sound by John Leonard arrives at Theatre Royal Brighton.
Theatre Royal Bath’s production of Present Laughter directed by Stephen Unwin and designed with busy, gorgeous naturalism by Simon Higlett arrives at Theatre Royal Brighton. Sam West fresh from his Chichester Young Chekhov season (which continues without him) slinks naturally into Coward’s self-parody: Garry Essendine, noonday narcissist, matinee idol, serial night hawk and busy morning writer.
One of the stars is easy to miss: John Leonard’s sound involves some of the wittiest music-matching I’ve heard. Just before the interval siren Joanna Lyppiatt tells Essendine she’s just seen Toscanini conduct Beethoven’s Eighth and Seventh. After each flirt their significant preferences (Essendine, the dramatic bombastic Fifth, Lyppiatt the uninhibitedly joyous Ninth) we’re treated to a subtle jazz-band arrangement of Beethoven’s Seventh, the adagio, suitably syncopated. It sweeps in shortly after Those Twentieth Century Blues and the gathering storm – this is 1939 – smokes through under the doors.
Both the first and second halves – first and third acts – open with a woman in a dressing gown issuing from a spare room to make a call. They’re very different: Daphne Stillington the ingénue and Joanna the married siren. They’ve very different motives too but both are in thrall to their conquest Essendine, again differently, and the genius of this construction is to create a symmetry of ritual and tweak it – not least when these two women collide and Stillington bitchily informs her rival that you can’t miss the chauffeur’s red hair.
In between those who understand this cheerful monster both comment on and ultimately dominate the plot. Phyllis Logan’s secretary Monica Reed beings rare honey and vinegar to her role of secretary, never missing the acidic observation-post, rapid summing-up of callers and proving herself core and chorus of Essendine’s web. Coward’s solution to any cliché is to provide two such: Essendine’s estranged wife Liz – a commanding Mrs Fawlty of a role – is taken by Rebecca Johnson with the suavity of a benign tigress. She and Logan lob sallies of wit around the room having ensured each has a racket. They’re in perfect sympathy, and when Morris Dixon (an energetic rich-voiced Jason Morell) and Harry Lypiatt (A booming major-domo) bounce in as producer and director, you know the firm’s complete and it’s the women who’ll ensure it remains intact.
Stillington, an appealing debutante who’s lost more than her latch key the previous night, is easily dispatched. Daisy Boulton ensures she remains appealingly fresh. Even her subterfuge – an audition under the auspices of her aunt Lady Saltburn mirroring back the Shelley poem Essendine dismissed her with on autopilot – never amounts to a threat. She simply doesn’t realize her apercus of Essendine’s sincerity are a photographic negative. She accuses him of acting when he’s sincere in wanting rid of her, and his great goodbye speech – prophesied by his ‘firm’ as a set-piece – she declares his only sincerity. This brittle fencing allows the cut-glass brilliance of the secondary scenes to glow.
When he’s dealing with heavier artillery though, such as Zoe Boyle’s Joanna, Coward lends both players a series of dazzling volte-faces in the seduction scene, all double-bluffs about the other’s perfidy. For denouements however – even Joanna comes back for a second bout and like everyone else has booked to go to Africa alongside Essendine – Coward introduces a note of British moral topside, full of beef and obloquy. West has piruoetted on Essendine’s self-preening brilliance; his timing’s excellent, particularly notable in the French farce scenes that Coward as ever makes the cast comment on as a genre, so self-reflexive is this play in sheets of mercury. There may appear hints of a sulky schoolboy but also the almost psychopathic shifts in mood as of need. Here however Coward produces heavier fare and West too seems overall a tad less charming, more British bulldog. There’s a little more lead in his moral compass, whatever he thinks he thinks.
When Liz moves to counter-blackmail – Joanna’s been having an affair with Dixon too and Liz will expose everything – we feel Joanna pays too heavy a price for not fitting in with the top people. Her moral and personal exclusion ought to be pitied: perhaps Coward allows for this in his exits for her. Boyle warms to her role, approaching the period voice from a contemporary pitch though notably more comfortable when her indignation rises.
Neither Stillington nor Joanna are the only ones to adoringly book a passage to Africa, whence Essendine’s parting. The student would-be-dramatist Roland Maule will too. His male travesty-role (as it would appear in 1939) of Daphne’s adoration, shrouds this in initial criticism of Essendine’s theatrical triviality, a courageous case of Coward’s airing his own critics. Maule’s the loony stand-out in this play, a palpable gay crush touching risky stereotypes, even if he does hail from Uckfield. Essendine however isn’t mad about the boy as Patrick Walshe McBride’s writhings of joy and despair count for a thrust to another room to cool off. Walshe McBride revels in his cringe factor and if he doesn’t go as completely wild as some versions encompassing slapstick gestures, conveys facially and with Pierrot weediness his idolizing.
Coward was generous in repeat uses and rapid sketchings-in of small parts. Martin Hancock’s Fred is all truculent scepticism, keeping just this side of what would then be insolence: he’s respected for it. Sally Tatum’s Miss Erikson’s a delight, with her medium friends and escapades, a prophesy of Blithe Spirit just around the dark corner. Tatum invests the dippy Swede with Swedenborgian pretensions, dipsy poses and a fantastic shimmy as she moves into excited phases of the moon. Elizabeth Holland takes Lady Saltburn in a role that’s sometimes doubled with Miss Erikson and does something adroitly baffled with it.
This is expertly-tailored, classy and for the most part surely-pitched fare: Stephen Unwin is sure-footed too and coaxes the best from even those in his ensemble who seem at an angle to its spirit. Minor caveats entered above can’t detract from the jewel-like precision of ensemble, light-footed blocking and quotable gestures – like the Beethoven – that makes this a production ravishingly conscious of its superiority.