At Jericho Arts Centre until Dec. 2
Celebrity has always had its price and in Noel Coward’s Present Laughter, fame is driving Garry Essendine (Edward Foy) to drink. Like most of those with hoards of adoring fans, Essendine has a love/hate relationship with being famous. An actor, he plays up all his adventures with brow-wiping, breast-beating histrionics. But with giddy Daphne Stillington (Melanie Reich), predatory Joanna Lyppiatt (Corina Akeson) and clever but estranged wife Liz (Lara Rose Tansey) all wanting a piece of him, it’s all too, too much. If only he can get away before they start carving him up.
Coward said that the purpose of a play is to entertain: "The theatre is a wonderful place, a house of strange enchantment, a temple of illusion. What it most emphatically is not and never will be is a scruffy, ill-lit, fumed-oak drill hall serving as a temporary soap box for political propaganda.” That attitude earned him an annual income of £50,000 in 1929, making him one of the highest earning writers in the world at that time.
Adam Henderson, directing Present Laughter for United Players, aims to please, too. What has been lost since this play’s premiere in 1942 (with Coward himself in the lead role) is the shock value of extra-marital affairs and the vaguest whiff of homosexuality. (Coward himself was gay but felt that his sexual preference was no one’s business but his own. However, he scandalized theatregoers with plays about infidelity, homosexuality, bisexuality, ménages a trois, nymphomania and drug use.)
Henderson focuses rather on the play’s period delights: Sean Malmas’s lovely art deco set with chocolate coloured, gold-embellished wallpaper; Jui Kang and Megan Kennedy’s 1930s costumes including a strapless scarlet satin gown on Akeson and a variety of silk dressing gowns on Foy; marcelled hairdos; and wonderful big band music of the period. And, of course, Coward’s witty repartee.
Coward’s plays require polished, stylish performance and some of this non-professional cast is up to the task all of the time; others are up to it some of the time. Foy, as Essendine, gives an arched, cleverer-than-thou performance. Coward admits the character is a caricature of himself: dapper, self-absorbed and slightly ridiculous.
Akeson, as Joanna, is catlike in her pursuit of Essendine. She’s a slinky femme fatale in that satin gown, hiding sharp claws and teeth when Joanna doesn’t get what she wants. Reich’s Daphne is girlish, chirpy and silly in love with Essendine. And there’s very good work from Rebecca Walters who, as Monica, Essendine’s private secretary, witnesses his amorous misadventures with a weary but indulgent patience. (This character, Coward claimed, was based on his longtime, longsuffering secretary and confidante Lorn Loraine.)
Seth Little is hilarious as the fey, would-be writer who absolutely refuses to leave Essendine’s home when the going gets hot. His body language and thin giggly voice are well done and perfectly timed.
Surprisingly — or maybe not — Present Laughter is ultimately very conservative in its values. England was on the verge of war in 1939 when the play was written and an “anything goes” attitude prevailed. Underneath that recklessness, however, there was a longing for stability and security. Marriage — at least in the theatre — often represents that safe place. Tansey, as Essendine’s wife, offers that solid ground with a kind of knowing amusement.
The cast is completed by Diana Sandberg, Broadus Mattison, C. Christofer Pritchett, Paul Griggs and Christine McBeath.
Coward once complimented a cast by saying it was so good it could play the Albanian telephone directory. This production isn’t quite there but this show does do what Coward wanted it to do: it entertains.