Noel Coward is frequently maligned for writing empty plays without depth. How one can accuse him of doing so with Present Laughter, currently running at the National, is beyond me.
Laughter is the tale of one Gerry Essendine (Alex Jennings), aka Coward writing himself, who spends the evening’s three hours ranting and raving about the tolls of an actor as his mistresses, colleagues, and secretary beleaguer him as he prepares for a trip to Africa. While the plot is thin, a sharp commentary on the state of the theatre is hidden within: the threats to ageing actors, casting politics, and the inability to separate onstage from off all surface as the farce plays out.
A particularly pointed moment comes when a young playwright confronts Essendine for playing shallow, empty roles in repetitive, indistinct plays. After Essendine tells slams the young man’s work, he explains that the future of theatre will be in ideas and psychology. Gary replies that may all be fine and good, but the theatre of the present demands a plot. While Coward was writing a decade before Waiting for Godot and the absurdists, his reply to the early avant garde is clear. As in real life, this figure of the alternative follows Essendine for the remainder of the play, a shadow hovering over the traditional farce’s end.
Many of the mainstream critics have complained about the increased presence of World War II overshadowing this production, absent in the 1939 original. In my opinion, the war material (a radio broadcast between the first and second scenes) helped with setting the date, and brought a sense of urgency to the proceedings, although more could have been done to follow it up. The material in no way detracted, but it didn’t add much either.
Much has also been said of Tim Hatley’s set, a claustrophobic wedge of a grand manor, which brings a sense of confinement to Essendine’s world. While doors abound, a clear vision of entrapment lingers throughout the production.
The cast are solid, and I particularly enjoyed Sara Stewart’s devious Liz and Anny Tobin as Gary’s snarky secretary Miss Erikson. In what is perhaps the Lyttleton curse, most of the actors tripped over at least one line over the course of the evening. Given that there were only four performances before the play goes on hiatus for another two weeks, chances are this is due to a lack of rehearsal and refreshment before the current run.
While Present Laughter is a play to be enjoyed in the present, it provides a full evening’s entertainment despite some slow scenes.
Where: National Theatre/Lyttleton
When: In Repertoire. Check the NT Website for dates and times.
Concessions: £10 day seats, £5 standing room, £18.50 regular standby 90 min. prior and £10 student standby 45 min. prior
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £18.50
RZ Other Notes: This play is long. Extremely long, in fact, clocking in at just under three hours with intermission. Given that comedy almost always plays best when short, there are a number of slower moments between the one liners and key pieces. Still, Coward’s self-satire is at its best when he talks about the theatre and nature, and there is quite a bit of autobiographical commentary throughout. That said, 20+ minutes of trims would certainly be appreciated.