Present Laughter (Theatre Royal, Bath)
Stephen Unwin directs this revival of Noel Coward's 1939 comedy
It's an odd experience to see Noel Coward's Present Laughter and Florian Zeller's The Truth only nights apart. Both are brittle comedies of manners about love, adultery, friendship and betrayal. Both are very funny. Both feature a stonking great part for a charismatic leading man. One is set in 1939, the other today, but little else separates them.
On the whole I prefer the Coward, given a whole-hearted revival by Stephen Unwin at the start of Theatre Royal Bath's summer season, if only because it is so obviously knowing about its own artificiality. It lacks pretensions to be anything other than it is - a well-engineered, sharp-witted and highly entertaining farce.
Its central character is Garry Essendine, a monstrously-puffed up actor who has made his fortune and his name as a juvenile lead, who suddenly finds himself up against the fact that he is 40. "God I look 98," he cries, combing his thinning hair and staring mournfully into a mirror. He staves off the passing years by exercising his charm on young ladies who lose their latch key and come to stay the night - supposedly in the spare room. In the morning he is consumed with regret and forced to quote Shelley to make them depart.
His egotism and attractiveness are bolstered by a close set of long-standing friends, who protect and serve him, not least because his undoubted acting prowess makes them all money. But the careful equilibrium of his existence is disrupted by the entrance into his life of three people: Daphne, a young woman who takes his love-making seriously, Roland, an enthusiastic young writer who is fixated on him, and most dangerously, Joanna, the wife of his best friend who is determined to seduce him.
"This to date is the most irritating morning of my life," cries Sam West's Esssendine as disasters pile up and chickens come home to roost. Looking like a cornered bear in a succession of elegant dressing gowns, West has enormous fun with the histrionics of the part, slumping dramatically agains the piano, or coughing affectedly as he rehearses one of his little speeches.
He stands at the centre of a pitch-perfect production, the tone set by Simon Higlett's realistic, rumpled set, the ideal abode for the sophisticated man about town. The cast all catch that note sweetly too. Phyllis Logan is outstanding as the long-suffering secretary, bringing tart disdain to every line. "Is he more charming off stage or on?" asks Daphne, breathlessly. "I can never quite decide," replies Logan, with withering emphasis.
But there are incidental pleasures everywhere, from Rebecca Johnson's sensible ex-wife, to Sally Tatum's daffy Swedish spiritualist housekeeper (it's that kind of play) to Daisy Boulton's wide-eyed Daphne, and Patrick Walshe McBride's crazed stalker, all long limbs and clumsy adoration.
It's all very silly, and there are longueurs particularly in the second act, but as well-made comedies go, this one emerges as a cracker.
Present Laughter runs at the Theatre Royal, Bath until 9 July.