Noel Coward's loosely autobiographical Present Laughter is a play about theatre and fame. The play's central character, the philandering egomaniac and enormously successful actor Garry Essendine, was the author's favourite part and undoubtedly paralleled Coward's own persona. For this revival the enormously successful actor Ian McKellen assumes the Essendine role.
The first thing that strikes is Robert Innes Hopkins gorgeous black, silver and blue Art Deco set, equally well lit by Peter Mumford. This is Essendine's studio in London, the scene for the play's numerous comings and goings.
Director Malcolm Sutherland has opted to treat the material in an appropriately parodic fashion, which allows the talented members of the Courtyard Company to provide the audience with a selection of comic caricatures to giggle at. Willie Ross, as psychic Scottish (the vulgar tartan trousers worn throughout immediately give the game away) butler Erickson, provides a fair share of laughs with his often aborted stage shuffling sorties to open the door. Will Keen's Fred is as cheeky cor blimey Dick Van Dykesque cockney chap as it gets and Keen also gets the chance to play the Dame as Lady Saltburn. As wacky comic efforts go it is Rhashan Stone who can claim the bragging rights with his Roland Maule, the psychotic fan intent on hounding Essendine at every uninvited opportunity. Stone combines the Jerry Lewis with Rowan Atkinson and some bendy, hyperactive body movements to please the crowd no end.
Essendine's not the kind of character anyone would wish to sympathise with - he's a spoilt, stroppy thespian whose carnal activities cause him no end of problems. McKellen plays the part up for all its theatrical worth, rolling R's quite recklessly. McKellen says more about the play when he is not delivering lines, as audience aimed glances reveal that he is performing with tongue placed firmly in ironic cheek.
Present Laughter is an entertaining but rather slow moving farce. Of the three acts it is only the second which travels with the necessary vigour. Coward's self indulgence is looking decidedly creaky almost sixty years after its inception, although surprisingly, given the paradigm at the time of writing, the female characters Monica (Susie Baxter), Liz (Clare Higgins), Joanna (Clare Swinburne) and Daphne (Claudie Blakley) are all self assured and assertive.
This is, however, a comedy that says virtually nothing other than look at me, it's hell being a star with an active libido. Nevertheless a worthwhile production thanks to the class performances of the stars involved.