Noël Coward’s semi-alter ego, the vain actor Gary Essendine, is a harder part to play than at first appears. He has to seem actorly without going way over the top, and on various occasions to let the audience see that he is handing a line to some admirer (whether artistic or romantic) without overdoing it so that the recipient would be a booby not to notice. Yet on occasion he also has to attain an underlying sincerity, even if expressed in grander terms than most would use. And if that description doesn’t boil down to “Simon Callow”, I’m a Dutchman.
Callow’s natural, disarming floridity is the default state of his performance as Essendine. It is one which a number of supporting players in Michael Rudman’s touring revival feel obliged to try to match, to their detriment; but that is their problem, not Callow’s. He pins this popinjay, of whom another character remarks, “All you do is wear dressing gowns and make witty remarks.”
But it is not all. Yes, he gives a little leap in the air when his estranged wife brings him such another dressing gown as a present, and delights in parodying his cracked, obsessive fan Roland Maule’s pronunciation of Chekhov’s name, turning “Ch’cough” into something truly bronchial. Yet there are also moments almost of poignancy. When Essendine knowingly succumbs to the siren stratagems of his producer’s wife, the last thing we see before the interval curtain is Callow’s closed-eyed expression of equal parts horror and ecstasy. Even in a minor moment, when dismissing his valet for the night, we realise in the final act that the two of them have a long-established ritual form of words and gestures for the event, and Callow’s trudge across the room conveys a tiredness with the routine mingled with guilt that he has allowed it to become so.
It is a central performance which excellently powers Coward’s comedy of romance and self-regard in the theatre business, but as I say few of the cast strike the same note. In particular, as the predatory Joanna, Lysette Anthony is nothing but artifice, with no suggestion of any deeper allure beneath the over-polished surface. Luckily, this is a play carried almost entirely on one set of shoulders: the rather rounded, middle-aged ones inside a flatteringly padded dressing gown.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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