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Present Laughter (Susan Elkin reviews)

Chichester Festival Theatre

Director: Sean Foley

A hoary old chestnut like this – Present Laughter dates from 1942 – has to zing, sing and bubble with impeccably energetic timing if it’s not to seem dated and mannered. And this cast – directed by Sean Foley – pulls it off almost all the time. There are moments when you feel that there’s a tad too much one-note shouting and the pace flags marginally in the last half hour but in general it’s a feel-good evening’s theatre with lots (and lots) of laughter, not least because the play is, of course, theatrically self-referential and said to be Noel Coward in autobiographical mode.

Garry Essendine (Rufus Hound) is a successful, wealthy actor with a penchant for women whom he attracts effortlessly. Sexual shenanigans with two of them, one of whom is married to his business colleague and having an affair with another (if you don’t know this play, I hope you’re concentrating) and the exasperation/collusion of his (sort of) ex-wive and secretary underpin the plot. It is of course, as one character observes, like being in a French farce, complete with banging doors, lots of hammy over acting, two very unconventional servants and a nod to Lady Bracknell in the character of Lady Saltburn (Carol Macready – nice cameo).

Hound’s central performance is pretty strong. He’s petulant, monstrous, childlike and resorts to the worst sort of over acting whenever the going gets difficult and that’s most of the time. Occasionally the veil lifts and Hound reveals the real Essendine who speaks fairly naturalistically – especially when he finally confronts Roland Maule (Ben Allen – good) who is stalking him. It is well judged work although I could hear Mr Toad, whom Hound played at The Palladium last year, in the voice when Essendine is being exceptionally excessive even by his own standards.

Tracy-Ann Oberman plays off him expertly as the long-suffering secretary, Monica Reed. Like the wife who lives elsewhere but still works in Essendine’s business (Katherine Kingsley), Oberman’s character is brisk, businesslike, perceptive and funny. She’s a dramatic foil to women like the well observed, braying Daphne Stillington (Lizzy Connolly) who idolise him blindly – and are happy to sleep with him.

Alice Power’s set makes imaginative use of Chichester Festival Theatre’s thrust stage with middle class pre war drawing room furniture down stage and a stair case behind leading to an elegant balcony around which Essendine’s art collection and piano are displayed. And she provides plenty of doors for all that dashing in and out. I loved the 1940s costumes too, especially Oberman’s purple shoes to match her suit.

First published by Sardines:

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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