"I'm always acting," proclaims Noël Coward's alter ego Garry Essendine in Present Laughter. Indeed he is, and often overacting, as he juggles his various romantic entanglements, their ramifications among his old circle of friends and business associates, and a wide-eyed obsessive (male) fan. It's tough, however, to strike the right balance, such that we in the audience can see the over-acting but not feel that we are just as much on the receiving end of it. In Gerard Murphy's production for Birmingham Rep, Simon Dutton's Garry manages it excellently – until the final minutes, when... but let me not get ahead of myself.
Murphy directs as much camp as Coward wrote, but largely resists the temptation to exaggerate it for a modern audience for whom the irony has entered our souls. It is when individual performances overshoot this level that they misfire: Doreen Hermitage's awful ageing, pig-tailed, sing-songing Scandinavian housekeeper, and Letitia Dean's consistently artificial vamping as the friend's wife who sets out to seduce Garry (in a voice uncannily like that of Josie Lawrence in similar mode).
For the most part, though, the degree of brittle poise is finely judged. Dillie Keane, as secretary Monica, pulls off Fiona Shaw's movie trick of being at once drawling and brisk; Bette Bourne, as ever, rightly disdains any kind of signal that, as Lady Saltburn, he is a man in drag; Adrian Ross-Magenty as proto-stalker Roland Maule, sails close to the wind but ultimately keeps our responses to him on the side of discomfiture rather than irritation. Dutton's Essendine is an astute creation: self-regarding (even when the action is at its most farcical, he always checks his hair in the mirror before rushing to answer the door) but not implausibly so, unfeeling (like Jane Fonda in Klute, in the middle of a kiss he steals a quick glance at his watch behind his lover's back) to a greater extent than even he wishes to admit to himself. The comedy of Present Laughter requires a lightness of touch exceptional even by Cowardian standards, but Murphy and his cast largely rise, soufflé-like, to the challenge.
Until, that is, the final ten minutes. The artificiality of the set-up (on Will Hargreaves' magnificent Art Deco penthouse set) is discreetly hinted at throughout by Murphy's device of locating the mirror in which everyone fixes their appearance on the "fourth wall", so that actors periodically preen right out at us. Then, in the home straight, as blunt truths are being exchanged, that wall is repeatedly sledge-hammered. It is just forgivable when Dutton enlists our complicity to ask, "And what's the matter with the provinces?", but when he then stares pleadingly and gestures wildly to the audience in an appeal for backers for Essendine's next project... when Keane then gets her own moment speaking straight out to us... when Murphy introduces a horrendously unsubtle lighting change for Garry's next big lines... the effect is to batter us ostentatiously over the head with the theatricality of the piece. Well, duh! It is almost, but not quite, enough to torpedo all the deftness of the preceding couple of hours.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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