Review: Present Laughter (Chichester Festival Theatre)
Rufus Hound stars as Garry Essendine in Noël Coward's comedy
Present Laughter was Noël Coward's flirtation with autobiography, a play set entirely in the home of a famous comic actor in the flamboyant throws of a mid life crisis – and originally played by Coward himself. Two society ladies contrive to lose their latchkeys after a night out, in order to access 'the nation's idol' au naturel – or at least, in one of his famous silk dressing gowns. But it is the playwright's own public that Coward – who pretty much invented the notion of the professional 'personality' – is really making a show of letting in.
Today's go-to medium for such a project would be the meta sitcom: Curb Your Enthusiasm has reinvented the art of self-reflexivity for celebrity comedians. This being the 1940s, Coward sticks to light, deftly-plotted three-act comedy. And he isn't remotely concerned to make Garry Essendine squirm when it comes to his attitudes to women or class.
But what Present Laughter does get, in the first production of the 2018 Chichester Festival, is a carbonated burst of physical comedy. Director Sean Foley, whose West End credits include The Ladykillers, Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, and The Play What I Wrote, knows how to mine for visual gags. The green velvet sofa sees plenty of action. Several guests get a faceful of cocktail. And Richard Mylan, as Essendine's friend and cuckold Morris Dixon, manages a majestic pratfall against gravity. In one running gag, a portrait hangs as wonkily as Essendine's morals.
In the lead role is Rufus Hound, a stand-up turned stage actor with a talent for amiable tomfoolery: he took over from James Corden in the National Theatre's One Man, Two Guvnors, and recently played Toad in the West End musical version of The Wind in The Willows. As a physical comedian Hound relies on his stoutness. So he isn't quite the debonair star of romantic comedies imagined by Coward.
But he is hugely energetic and engagingly human as the put-upon star who doth protest too much. He skips, swoons and at one point mimes swimming up the central art deco staircase. Though Essendine becomes trapped in role, unable to convince visitors that he isn't acting, Hound never loses his playfulness. In a lonely moment of half-cut despond, he picks out a tune on a row of abandoned sherry glasses.
Significant frustrations with its unexcavatable lightness and its unchecked attitudes aside, Present Laughter isn't a bad choice to open the first Chichester Festival season with a 50:50 gender-split. Essendine's charade of a life is simultaneously propped up, puffed up and wryly critiqued by two indefatigable women: ex-wife Liz, played here with voluptuous determination by Katherine Kingsley, and his faithful secretary Monica (Tracy-Ann Oberman). Lizzy Connolly is frothily idiotic as his first ‘visitor', Daphne, while Lucy Briggs-Owen quivers with predatory sexuality as Joanna.
The joke, of course, is that there is no ‘back stage'. Essendine's whole life is a performance – though less of a performance, he eventually suggests, than that of his friends'. Facing out to the audience, characters are constantly adjusting themselves in an unseen mirror. In the aftermath of the farcical climax, Essendine, placing the tip of his cigarette to a handful of lingering party balloons, deflates every ego in turn.