Garry Essendine is having a bad morning at his stately home. First there's the tiresome business of a female fan, to whom he's declared love the night before, to get rid of. Then, the arrival of the middle-aged actor's wife - from whom he has separated - prompts a lecture; he is harangued by a tyro playwright and, to cap it all, the leading lady in the production he's just about to take to Africa has broken her leg and can't now perform.
Present Laughter offers a plum of a part - as you might imagine of one that was written by Coward with himself in mind - and Rik Mayall, star of TV shows such as The Young Ones and Bottom, seizes it with both hands, to the obvious delight of a capacity audience.
Mayall's performance is a world away from the clipped, self-possessed riffs of the Master, though it's equally mannered. He deploys the full range of his formidable comic arsenal. Hands shoot out and rent the air as he's accused by his wife of overacting. And, when Angry Young Man Henry Lyppiatt (John Dougall) launches into a tirade against the old theatrical world represented by Coward and his contemporaries - "All you do with your talent is wear dressing gowns and make witty remarks when you might be helping people, making them think! Making them feel!" - Mayall cowers and covers his groin.
Present Laughter contains some of Coward's best writing. How you feel about Mayall's performance is a matter of taste. He acts in CAPITAL LETTERS. Of course, the point about Essendine is that he does overact, but I'm reminded at times here of Peter Ustinov's jib to a Method Actor: "Don't just do something - stand there." Less, sometimes, is more.
The rest of the cast are uniformly excellent, particularly Pooky Quesnell as Essendine's long-suffering secretary Monica Reed, Dougall as Lyppiatt, and Joanne Howarth as the dotty servant Miss Erikson, a fine comic turn. Direction, by the artistic director of the excellent Oxford Stage Company, Dominic Dromgoole, is to the high standard you'd expect.
At three hours long, with two intervals, Coward's comedy is long. But as the Lord Chamberlain noted in 1939, when licensing it: "The play is practically all talk...Garry rants for pages and never bores."