(reviewed at the Arts Theatre Cambridge on 25 July)
One of Noël Coward’s greatest strengths as a writer was his ability to recognise his self-created image for the theatrical construction that it was. Of all the plays he wrote and starred in during the 30s and 40s, Present Laughter most epitomises this. Stephen Unwin’s new production for the Theatre Royal Bath is heading for the West End – and you can see why.
Designer Simon Higlett gives us a marvellously cluttered living-room set with a spiral staircase corkscrewing its way up to the landing dominated by a flattering portrait of ageing matinée idol Garry Essendine (Samuel West). The women’s costumes have just the right period appearance, from Liz Essendine Rebecca Johnson)’s halo hat to Joanna Lyppiatt (Zoe Boyle)’s slinky velvet evening-dress in malevolent dark green.
If West is the star of the show, with a nice line in self-admiration balanced with a sense of his own perpetual posturing, the female actors all make their mark. Phyllis Logan is the crisp secretary Monica Reed, a woman who has seen it all before and who has no intention of playing up to her boss’s moods and tantrums. Johnson’s cool and collected Liz is offset by Boyle’s Joanna, a ruthless predator in pursuit of her own pleasure; her extended second-act exchange with Garry is beautifully paced.
Patrick Walshe McBride is extremely funny as the clumsy would-be playwright fixated on the theatre of the future as the theatre of ideas. Theatre investor Henry Lypiatt and producer Morris Dixon provide Toby Longworth and Jason Morell with contrasting opportunities which they seize readily.
As starry-eyed debutante Daphne Stillington, Daisy Boulton begins the play as a mass of girlish illusions which have let her down by the end of the second act. Theatre and real life always seem to be on a collision course.
Present Laughter runs at the Arts Theatre Cambridge until 30 July with matinées on 28 and 30 July.