Noël Coward tends to take a bit of a bashing nowadays. The average Coward production is about as unfashionable as its octogenarian audience is unaware of where they are. But now that Terrence Rattigan is cool again – witness The Deep Blue Sea at the National – perhaps it’s time his much-ridiculed contemporary was viewed with a smidgen less scorn.
And Stephen Unwin’s slick Theatre Royal Bath production of Present Laughter, currently playing at Richmond, is just the ticket. With Samuel West as the mercurial Garry Essendine, a strong supporting cast, an extravagant set and a thick layer of polish, Unwin’s show is as good as a Coward production can get. It’s an effortlessly drôle evening that, if nothing else, reminds you that Coward – like him or loathe him – was an extremely witty writer.
West – in the matinee idol role Coward shamelessly created for himself – is damn near perfect as the put-upon Essendine: self-centred, hypocritical, womanising and sparklingly pithy. Clad in a variety of colourful silk dressing gowns, he saunters, stomps and staggers his way around Simon Higlett’s expansive drawing-room set, always over-egging it to just the right degree. At times angst-ridden, at times angry, and at times winsomely charming, he captures the essential theatricality of Essendine well; he is every inch an actor playing an actor.
Around him, Phyllis Logan is blithely austere as Essendine’s “frightening old warship” secretary; Zoe Boyle is shrewishly ambitious as dangerous (read sexually liberated) bright, young thing Joanna; and Rebecca Johnson is appropriately pragmatic as Garry’s ever-loving ex-wife Liz. The whole pack of them are all jaw-droppingly hateful, of course, but that is very much the point.
Despite these – and more – solid performances, however, it is West that carries the show, spitting out barbed witticisms like daggers before melodramatically collapsing onto chaise-longues, mopping his brow and moaning about the mercilessness of his five-star life. Lines like “It’s women like you who undermine the whole integrity of civilisation” – although almost impermissibly anachronistic – sound like they could have been written for him.
There’s an awful lot to despise about Present Laughter, from its appallingly misogynistic attitude towards women (who are all either airheaded sycophants, sly sex-pests or passionless mother-figures), to the only progressive voice in the show being patronisingly handed-out to a deranged young man (played with verve by Patrick Walshe McBride), to the inclusion of two working-class characters in walk-on walk-off comic roles.
But, unforgiveable though that is, there is an awful lot to admire about Present Laughter too. It’s finely-crafted plot (a farcical tale of clandestine affairs amongst a fading clique of showbiz types), its snappy, razor-sharp dialogue, and its refusal to take anything at all seriously to name but three. And that’s all handled expertly in Unwin’s production.
We still appreciate The Taming Of The Shrew, The Duchess Of Malfi and Pygmalion for their technical skill and historical significance, despite their obvious ethical downfalls. We should be able to appreciate Present Laughter too. If we banish Coward to the hinterlands, only doling him out to the suburban over-70s like winter fuel allowance, we risk a whole generation of theatre-goers never seeing one of the twentieth century’s most popular and influential dramatists.
Present Laughter is playing at Richmond Theatre until 6 August 2016. For more information and tickets, see the AGT tickets website.