Directing a lesser-known Noel Coward play sets a challenge: do you make it a period piece or do you find some way to make it more contemporary? Director Sean Foley took the latter route and it did not really work.
Perhaps he had at the front of his mind the success of James Corden in A Servant of Two Masters by casting a comedian Rufus Hound in the lead role of matinee idol and lothario Gary Essendine. A comedian normally has good timing and Rufus Hound did but he simply lacked credibility hamming up the acting and unlikely as a philanderer at whom women threw themselves.
Coward for all his talent as playwright, composer, cabaret artist, painter and wit, may now seem outdated to the modern young theatre goer. His reputation was wrecked in the fifties by critic Kenneth Tynan and a new wave of kitchen sink gritty drama replaced his more mannered bourgeois comedies. Always sensitive and liable to nervous breakdown, he retreated to his villa in Jamaica.
Yet he would examine issues which are relevant today such as cocaine addiction and mother and son relationship in the Vortex.
Although Present Laughter is presented as comedy and farce it covers the issues of dwindling fame, love and sex, the theatrical world. Roland Maule might represent the incoming new theatre of the Royal Court but his passion for Essendine is significant too. Above all Essendine (anagram for neediness) is the quintessential troubled actor and thus highly autobiographical. However by taking the comic route these issues became superfluous as the play descended into farce. There were some well nuanced performances – Katherine Kingsley as Essendine’s wife Liz and Lucy Briggs-Owen as the sexual predator Joanna – but the male roles with such lines “You’re a cad” and “Fiddlesticks” only served to date the play in a era now well past. Curiously as it was written in 1939 in six days and premiered in 1942 there is almost no feeling of the gloom of war.
At over two hours you felt its length and, although right at the end they revved it up with a song and dance sequence, it was rather too little and too late.