FringeReview UK 2018
Directed by Leigh Ward, Brighton Little Theatre mounts Preset Laughter. BLT’s production grounds itself in Japanoiserie red and black designed to classic BLT standards by Steven Adams with Tom Williams providing a specialism in the stairs design and construction. Beverley Grover’s matinee lighting, sound design and operation feeds us 1930s Porter to the blues and back, and Margaret Skeet’s costumes are notable for a fleet of silk dressing gowns and a superb electric blue outfit for Liz Essendine.
‘Present youth hath present laughter/youth’s a stuff will not endure.’ Garry Essendine reflects turning forty in 1939 blissfully refusing the shadows of war as he exaggerates his receding hairline just to banish recession.
But present laughter’s something else: as Essendine admonishes the Uckfield idiot (more later) about the theatre of tomorrow (so Chekhov, so Seagull) he notes the theatre of the future can look after itself. Noel Coward’s almost stridently asserting that present laughter, even if it’s laughing in the dark under brilliant lighting, is enough. Directed by Leigh Ward, Brighton Little triumphantly proves it too in the best amateur production of any Coward I’ve seen.
So there’s a little Shaw in Coward: a virtuoso put-down by a terminally exasperated matinee idol cum playwright cornered by an obsessive admirer hammers out a quite serious creed. Stagecraft as well as aspirational absurdities are given the opposite advice of Mrs Worthington’s daughter: put yourself on the stage, preferably as a stage hand, work from the inside of a backstage upwards and learn your trade. It’s as close as Coward comes to Hamlet’s advice to Elsinore’s travelling players.
BLT’s production grounds itself in Japanoiserie red and black, a hangover from the 1920s the 1930s austerity hasn’t quite banished. You blithely expect Steven Adams to turn in another magnificent offering, with Tom Williams providing a specialism in the stairs design and construction. Naturally they do. Beverley Grover’s matinee idol lighting, sound design and operation feeds us 1930s Porter to the blues and back, and Margaret Skeet’s costumes are especially notable for a fleet of silk dressing gowns and a superb electric blue outfit for Liz Essendine, who assumes it with regal nonchalance.
It starts with latchless key kids; a perennial excuse for being found in the spare room after a night of sex. A young former debutante flits in a dressing gown teetering on ebullience and blithely orders coffee. Thus Charlotte Anne Atkinson’s Daphne Stillington gawks and minces her minutes on stage. Atkinson – like many of the cast – shone in the recent BLT Earthquakes in London. She’s emerging as a superb actor. Here her volume’s turned up a little too shrilly, but this is a first night and things will settle.
Which is more than they will in the mayhem about to be released that neither Mimi Goddard’s spiritualist housekeeper Miss Erikson (slouch hat, fag hung out of mouth except when cadging several) or Ciaran O’Connor’s smoothly truculent Fred the valet can forestall: except to prevent Daphne from prancing up and waking the recumbent Essendine with further memories of the night before. Which for a moment having pledged eternal love he’s completely forgotten when eh does finally emerge.
Paul Morley quickly settles into devastating form: he’s wholly on top of the cut-glass rationale and quick-fire assurance of the serpentine charmer who finds his folds and clutches are more silk than snakeskin but still mean ingénues like Daphne come away with one less skin layer. Morley’s towering command, never gangly despite his vaulted appearance, makes much of a hairline in retreat and forty already route-marching over his scalp. You feel his need of dressing gowns is rather a hankering for social lubrication as it were, as he sveltes and purrs his way smoothly past his admirers and occasional detractors. Movement here and elsewhere is nearly blocked and his synch when tinkling the piano is as it were underscored neatly.
Gary Essendine’s the matinee playwright who’ll never grow up. Liz has long left him but on very affectionate terms particularly with his long-suffering secretary Tess Gill’s exasperated coper Monica Reed. Mandy-Jane Jackson’s assumption of Liz is one of the chief delights of this production. You can see where Sybil Fawlty descends from. There’s nothing forced in her serene disposing of every woman or man thrown at her to cope with.
Indeed the only one she’s not really called upon to deal with is Neil Drew’s superb suburbanite Roland Maule, here played ruthlessly as a true son of Uckfield abandoning law to obsessively follow Essendine: first in a whirl of minutes as aspiring playwright, then fierce critic, then adoring groupie. In one production he ends up on the floor clutching at Essendine’s leg. Here he doesn’t need to and the delicate pathos of the infatuated Uckfield boy is given fuller rein and credence than the Oxbridge loser he’s generally portrayed as. Even down to the Brylcream quiff like a young Hitler, Drew exudes prostrate, hopeless adoration, and pure misery.
The ingénues Drew and Atkinson are the least of the Essendine entourages’ challenges. the enemy within is so much more devastating Essendines’ hapless producers and agents Henry Lyppiatt – Mike skinner on superb urbane form – and Steven Adams’ anxious assumptions as Maurice Dixon – are bound though they don’t know it by scheming Joanne. She’s married to Henry, carrying on with Maurice but has her sights full on Gary Essendine, and has a mean line in Toscanini concert schedule small-talk seduction. So what if she gets him?
Sarah Griffin too insinuates and slinks her way with sexy assurance: she’s even give two fine exit-lines and slaps to deliver. I one sense she’s invincible, in the very arena where the Essendines pride themselves on sure-fire delivery: put-downs. But she’s nevertheless a little vulnerable. Griffin shudders out a little of the fear lurking there too.
Caroline Lambe’s of all things not Charlie’s but Daphne’s aunt and Daphne’s ploy to be auditioned without Essendine knowing in advance who she really is one of the later delights of this work. and then what? Will Henry and Maurice discover about Joann with Maurice, or with someone else? How will it all explode? Will Liz Essendine with Miss Reed’s help work out a five-point peace plan as they all seemingly wish to embark on the same boat for Africa (pronounced Efrica, out of that Streep echo)? Will her blithe response to all latch key claimants that they spent the night at her flat make any difference? Do find out. A gem.