By Noel Coward
Directed by Rob Coles
Noel Coward is known as a master of comedy. His plays reflect the high society that he frequented… a society that did not survive the Second World War. Present Laughter was written in 1939 and first staged in 1942 when that war was upon us. The title comes from a song in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, “present mirth hath present laughter” or “carpe diem”. This is a sentiment to which Garry Essendine, an actor obsessed with himself and dealing with his mid-life crisis, certainly adheres. In this play, which steals some elements of farce, he is forced to deal with women and a man obsessed with him, an estranged wife trying to save him and a secretary who sees it all. And that is only the beginning of his troubles. Essendine is Coward himself and he played the role in the original production.
Many consider Present Laughter as one of Coward’s weaker plays. The repetition of events and an ending that echoes Private Lives make it difficult to direct. Here, the three acts have been reduced to two and, though there is no mention of it being an adaptation, some of the original script is missing. Unfortunately, these lost lines establish relationships and the early history upon which much of the humour relies. Without these elements, the characters and their situations cannot be fully developed.
There is a fine and dangerous line in comedy that marks the edge between character and caricature. This script demands excellence in acting. Many professional companies have fallen short in its production. To make a play funny, to find the humour, the characters must be real people. We must believe that these are real people caught in these fraught circumstances. Todd Baubie as Essendine, Elizabeth Durand as his secretary, Monica and Robin Rundle Drake as his wife, Liz, manage to do this. Baubie creates the self- absorbed, philandering actor to a tee. Durand manages to love her boss and spar with him. Rundle Drake makes us feel that she still loves him but see his flaws clearly. Edward Hepburn does well as the valet. They remain real. We can laugh at their conundrums and enter their repartee. We can laugh at their foibles.
After that, the line is crossed and most of the remaining cast plays over the top. Their delivery of over-worked accents only serves to slow the pace and reduce their characters’ credibility. Small gestures often create a larger impact. Sometimes, showing a little ankle is far more seductive than flinging one’s self on the couch. Director Rob Coles creates a show that misses the subtleties of dialogue and action. It is these subtleties that make Noel Coward’s work so great, yet so difficult to direct. As previously stated, even the professionals can get it wrong.
This production of Present Laughter does have its moments of laughter present…but not enough. Much is lost in this larger than life production.
Cheryl Jennings is a award winning actress, director and theatre designer who studied acting at the University of Windsor and King Alfred College, England and spent time at the Stratford Festival.