Present Laughter

by Noël Coward

Directed by Sara Randall

February 8th - 15th, 2003

The Tower Theatre performing at the Tower Theatre, Canonbury


Cast List

Daphne Stillington : Philippa Pearson
Miss Erikson : Celia Reynolds
Fred : Tom Tillery
Monica Reed : Rosalind Moore
Garry Essendine : Ian Recordon
Liz Essendine : Nikki Smith
Roland Maule : Nicholas Cannon
Henry Lyppiatt : Andrew Craze
Morris Dixon : Mark Sturdy
Joanna Lyppiatt : Karen Walker
Lady Saltburn : Eileen Marner


Production Team

Director : Sara Randall
Set and Costume Design : Lea Tunesi
Lighting Design : Stephen Ley

Stage Manager : Ann Watchorn
DSM : Sarah Ambrose
ASMs : David Brown, Jacqui DePrez, Lesley Scarth, Annie O'Donnell
Lighting operators : Peta Barker, Michael Allaway
Sound operator : Elaine Saunders
Set construction : Chris McCombe, Morna Skinner, Ben Rose, Tony Bourached, John Feather, Terry Baker-Self, Margaret Ley, Phillip Ley, Alan Nesbitt, Claire Christy and members of cast & crew

In-house review by Colin Smith

Before retirement, Colin Smith was a BBC Radio producer specialising in poetry and drama for schools. He has a special interest in Noël Coward.

"Present Laughter was great fun - and naturally my favourite part - it's got all the things I like best in it". The process of writing occupied Coward over six intensive days during April 1939, though he pointed out that "Present Laughter had waited about, half-formulated, for nearly three years before I finally wrote it". This Happy Breed resulted from the same burst of activity, and his plan was to appear in each play on alternate nights heading the same company. A pre-London tour was scheduled to begin in Manchester during September. In August they did two weeks' strenuous rehearsals, but on September 1st Germany invaded Poland.

"The sets and dresses were under way and the cast all engaged and straining at the leash, so there was nothing but the destruction of civilisation to worry about". The plays were cancelled, the company disbanded, and within a week Coward was on Government duties in Paris. It was not until three years later, after "the long and bloody travail" of filming In Which We Serve that the author was able to arrange a 28-week tour in wartime conditions. Six months later the two plays ran for eight weeks at the London Haymarket "where we played happily to capacity for the whole season."

Coward described Present Laughter as "a very light comedy", in spite of which is it more expansive than most of his output; but from the penultimate scene it builds to a well-crafted climax. The plot merely reflects the marital and other complications in the life of narcissistic matinee idol Gary Essendine and his entourage of ex-wife, affaires, devotees and fans, but the complications and reversals are of Feydeauesqure proportions - as Essendine himself remarks at one point, "it's like being in a French farce" - accompanied by a fusillade of treasurable ripostes. To add further piquancy, in a BBC interview many years later, Coward admitted: "Of course Gary Essendine is me".

Harold Hobson of the Sunday Times concluded that "his comedy lay in a carefully crafted, well-bred, discourteous retort, in chic and cultivated bad manners". John Lahr summarises Present Laughter as "Coward's justification of charm. It is one of his five enduring classics of light comedy because the public, who pay to be enchanted, like to see charm triumphant. It confirms their sense of well-being and their faith in manners." This theory seemed to be borne out in the audience's response to Sara Randall's ebullient production, strongly cast and attractively staged.

Ian Recordon in the key role of Gary Essendine was all calculated charm ("I'm always acting!"), swooping exuberance and spirited self-justification. Rosalind Moore's Monica, his worldly-wise, peremptory secretary (modelled on Coward's own amanuensis Lorn Loraine) displayed exactly the requisite brittleness alternating with a shrugging indifference to unsettle her employer. His other acolytes were the Nordic Miss Erikson, grimly amused and peppery (Celia Reynolds), and Fred (Tom Tillery), his spry, cheerily accommodating valet.

Of the two women figuring largest in Gary's life, Nikki Smith as Liz was relaxed, good-humoured and soignee; Karen Walker's Joanna, rival for the great man's affections, was the quintessential Coward oddball, a totally lethal presence looming in ebonised pageboy bob. In their wake were the ever anxious menfolk, convincing in style and diction, Morris Dixon (Mark Sturdy) and Henry Lypiatt (Andrew Craze). Roland Maule, Gary's obsessive fan, was neatly characterised by Nicholas Cannon, Philippa Pearson presented Daphne Stillington as a feather-brained ingenue with designs on Gary, and Eileen Marner's cameo appearance as Lady Saltburn was suitably incisive.

A well-laid out pink and burgundy setting in Deco mode was designed by Lea Tunesi and lit with seductive warmth by Stephen Ley. Dresses matched this general exuberance, deliriously dotty hats in particular. Thursday's performance met a packed house on pleasure bound; and, as earlier critics would note after a resounding success, "The audience were all gratified in the highest degree".