In no other play did Noel Coward define the public image of himself more than he did in Present Laughter, which he wrote in 1939 and appeared in three years later after a delay caused by the outbreak of war.
Gary Essendine is a monstrously vain actor at the centre of a small, dedicated coterie. For all the brilliance of the writing, Coward still sounds deep and melancholy notes about the price of celebrity, the demands of fame (“I belong to the public,” he cries) and the resentment he feels at being a breadwinner for everyone else.
There’s a moment in Howard Davies’ oddly brusque and charmlessly monumental production in the Lyttelton when Alex Jennings as Gary flops in a chair and listens dreamily to the love duet from New Moon by Oscar Hammerstein and Sigmund Romberg. It’s not in the stage directions, but the song, and Jennings’ face, confirms Gary’s regret at not living a “normal” life such as that of his valet Fred (Tony Turner) or housekeeper Miss Erikson (Anny Tobin), who go out to pubs, music halls and spiritualist séances.
Davies also decorates the piece with a war-time sensibility of radio announcements, water drips from the vaulted ceiling of Tim Hatley’s frankly hideous design into a downstage bucket, and a general sense of defiant rushing about after lights out.
This would be fine if the play needed it or the show found a way of unleashing the profoundest thing about Coward, his witty superficiality (they don’t). Jennings is a superb technical actor, but he seems embarrassed by his own histrionics; the crucial thing about Gary, his glamorous sex appeal, is scuffed over with a blustery indifference. Gary should not resemble a tramp with a bad haircut and an ugly dressing gown worn over day clothes that might have come from an Oxfam shop. He’s a matinee idol, a god, though one with expensively shod feet of clay.
He is besieged by women who want to sleep with him, his protective wife Liz (Sara Stewart) and an earnest playwright from Uckfield, Roland Maule, whom Pip Carter invests with a weirdly strangulated accent and a lethal handshake. The predatory Joanna Lyppiatt (Lisa Dillon) is married to one of Gary’s managers and having an affair with another.
Gary himself is about to embark on a tour to Africa (refusing one casting suggestion with the line, “I wouldn’t go as far as Wimbledon with Beryl Willard”) but unable, both literally and metaphorically, to shake off his entourage. His dependence on his secretary of 17 years, Monica, is superbly conveyed by Sarah Woodward who alone, apart from Jennings, knows how to speak the lines with zing and sting.
There’s a way of doing Coward that freshens and challenges the received notions – Philip Prowse and Sean Mathias have shown how. But this production seems undermined by its own nervousness about doing Coward at all. It’s fairly funny, but not nearly funny enough. And the wigs and costumes are uniformly dreadful.