Review – Present Laughter, National Theatre

Saturday 20 October 2007

[Note from Andrew: Apologies. There are quite a few blah-blah-blah-type golden oldie reminiscences coming up courtesy of Phil. Thought I should warn you.]

Phil had seen Present Laughter in Bournemouth in the days when Andrew was still playing with his conkers. Peter Wyngarde had taken the lead (see bottom of post if this name means nothing to you).

This turned out to be a most happy serendipity as Helen Smith had brought along a new Would-Be-Whinger called Richard who is a real live actor.

At the mention of the name “Peter Wyngarde” Richard turned grey. It emerged that Richard once played opposite Mr Wyngarde in a disastrous theatrical production at Liverpool Playhouse and he regaled the ultra-attentive Whingers with a marvellously amusing and deliciously scandalous theatrical anecdote….

Unfortunately we’ve been sworn to secrecy so we can’t repeat it. But it was utterly marvellous. Sorry.

Anyway, all Phil could remember from the Bournemouth Playhouse was a glitzy deco set and Wyngarde swanning around in a lot of dressing gowns. And that it was very long.

Much has changed since those days, but Noël Coward’s Present Laughter at the National Theatre is still long. In fact it’s four acts long, thank you for asking and occupies three hours of one’s time.

Another thing which hasn’t changed is the proliferation of dressing gowns (they’re mentioned in the “text”).

Coward’s play is centred around the vain and urbane Garry Essendine (Alex Jennings), a successful actor who is unable to control his womanising (and, it is hinted, man-ising) much to the increasing exasperation of devoted his inner circle of friends (including his wife and his loyal secretary). A farce ensues.

Phil thought that the set which appeared to a round of applause (they hadn’t heard this since Rafta, Rafta) was actually rather ugly, painted in a rather nasty shade of green that Phil hadn’t seen since he mentioned to Andrew that he’d seen Ingrid Bergman on stage. Phil was once again transported back to his days at the Theatre Royal Brighton where every set and set change would elicit a warm round, but then so would each star on their first entrance (in those days every play had stars in them). Imagine! Ah, happy days.

Notwithstanding the set and the length, Andrew didn’t nod off once and the Whingers returned after the interval to enjoy some more witty writing and top notch performances.Everyone in the party adored Sarah Woodward’s (daughter of Edward and stepdaughter of Michele Dotrice) performance of Essendine’s secretary Monica. Phil was put in mind of Ann Widdecombe by her voice and mannerisms, but with a great deal more warmth in her curt put downs and beauty in her face. Indeed, by the end of the show Phil was determined to take her home (Monica that is, not Widders) and have a PA just like Monica. Even more so when he discovered that Woodward has both an Olivier AND a Tony nomination. Unfortunately he’s still saddled with Andrew whose role it is to take down Phil’s rambling bon mots on his pad and type them up into coherent articles reeking of panache.

Plaudits also go to:

  • Sara Stewart as Essendine’s glamorous wife; she looks completely at home in the forties style outfits and wigs. Helen was clever enough to realise that Stewart was the wife who we all greatly enjoyed in The Pain and the Itch at the Royal Court.
  • Pip Carter as the worrryingly eccentric Essendine fan Roland Maule.
  • Anny Tobin as the comedy housekeeper Miss Erikson. Although she initially confused us because we weren’t sure whether she was from Birmingham, Scotland or Germany (she turned out to be Scandinavian) Ms Tobin utterly redeemed herself with a priceless cigarette-stealing scene.

And, of course, to Jennings as Essendine who sustains the amazing amount of energy the role demands, seemingly without breaking into a sweat.

No sweat, but plenty of spitting. Our attention had been drawn to this by one of our guest reviewers who wrote to us to say:

I was sitting next to a charming old gentleman in Row B at Present Laughter, who suddenly turned to me and announced that we were probably going to get showered by all the spittle from the performers, before going on to say .. “Michael Redgrave was absolutely the WORST. I don’t know how his leading ladies put up with it. And he wasn’t anywhere near as good as Olivier, Richardson and Gielgud.” Now I think he meant at acting, but he may well have meant gobbing. So I wondered.. have you ever done a piece on the greatest expectorators of the stage?I would suggest Derek Jacobi in Richard II. My husband reckons it’s Kenneth Branagh in Hamlet.

Andrew’s nomination is Ralph Fiennes in Julius Caesar at The Barbican. Phil is still thinking – flicking decades and decades backwards through his mental Rolodex. Regrettably that’s almost certainly going to result in a whole new slew of theatrical reminisceneses of yesteryear. Sorry.


For those of you who don’t remember Peter Wyngarde:

7 Responses to “Review – Present Laughter, National Theatre”

  1. tim Says:

    If you look up at the ceiling of the set in the National’s current version of Present Laughter, you would notice large damp patches on either side. Also in Act III there is a bucket in the middle of the stage for rain-leak, and Jennings gets a laugh by catching a drop in his glass. Being the subsidised theatre, this is the director/designer’s attempt to indicate that “the roof is about to fall in on these shallow, privileged people.” As if either a super-efficient PA like Monica or a successful actor like Garry would fail to have his own roof mended.

    The same applies to the ludicrous moment when Garry and servant listen to the Prime Minister announcing the outbreak of the World War, and then switch the radio off and carry on as if nothing had happened. The characters then take flights to Paris, boats to South Africa, and plan opening-nights in the West End, while air-raid sirens go off in the background. None of the characters even mention that a world war is going on outside.

    This is hardly surprising, since in reality the play was written in the spring of 1939, at a time when there was still hope for peace. Also in reality, when war was declared the opening of the play was cancelled, and Noel Coward himself joined the Intelligence service, to help the war-effort.

    This production is just another attempt by the subsidised theatre to impose its own agenda on a classic. However, the actors do brilliantly, as the Whingers say, and the play is well worth seeing for its wit and characterization.

  2. Hmmm, Tim. You’re right.

    You may also be thinking about it too much. But you’re right. It doesn’t make sense. They are trying to turn Coward into Chekhov and make it about the death of a social class.

    On the plus side: we applaud the National’s policy of “something for everyone”.

  3. Mikey Says:

    Greatest Expectorants of All Time.

    This has, of course, to be Daniel Massey ? Surely the Whingers remember that at the National’s production of ‘Man and Superman’ the front three rows of stalls were all provided with waterproof sheets and sou’westers ?
    Though I forget ! The Whingers would surely not be old enought to remember such things ?

  4. On the spitting issue, Jude Law doing his Serious Actor thing in Dr Faustus a few years back was very generous with his saliva, sharing with the whole front row I recall.

  5. Many years ago a friend of mine was in the front row to seethat great actor and even greater spitter Hugh Griffith at Stratford (I think as Falstaff). My friend got showered, and pointedly did a brushing-off gesture on his jacket to communicate the fact. Next time Griffith knelt down at the front of the stage, he whispered, “Fuck off.”

  6. Alexandra Says:

    The saliva king has got to be Jonathan Slinger over at the RSC. After his show-stopping number in Henry VI Part 3 I think they spent most of the interval mopping the stage. Stunning actor, though.

  7. DMN Says:

    The worst spitter has got to be Stephen Mangan in the Norman Conquests (Old Vic). Disgusting.

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