Present Laughter, Pitlochry Theatre, Review

Rating (out of 5)
Show details
Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Noel Coward (writer), John Durnin (director), Frances Collier (set and costume design)
Mark Elstob (Garry Essendine), Irene Allan (Liz Essendine), Jacqueline Dutoit (Miss Erikson, Lady Saltburn), Simon Donaldson (Fred), Jill Myers (Monica), Karen Fishwick (Daphne, Joseph Mann (Ronald), Carl Patrick (Henry), Dougal Lee (Morris), Martine McMenemy (Joanna)
Running time

This light comedy about an ageing matinee idol was written by Noel Coward as an autobiographical tour de force for himself. Now approaching forty and impending mid-life crisis, this was a dramatic role for self-reflection on the egotistical power and personality of his own celebrity status.

The play is set over a few days in London, 1937 at Garry Essendine’s glamorous, wood panelled, art deco apartment, complete with grand piano and sweeping staircase.

Like Coward, he is a hugely successful, narcissistic theatrical star, whose utter charm and intellectual wit masks a rather pompous vanity: “Everybody worships me, it’s nauseating.”

The (rather uneventful) plot observes his manic, manipulative behaviour in dealing with his entourage of adoring staff, colleagues, friends and lovers.

The action begins one morning around 10.30, when a pretty young girl, dressed in men’s pyjamas and dressing gown, creeps tentatively out of the guest bedroom into the drawing room.

This is Daphne, one of Garry's lovesick, star-struck admirers, who is greeted by Miss Erikson, the chain-smoking housekeeper, Fred, the carefree Cockney butler and Monica, his briskly efficient secretary.

Daphne’s presence in the apartment at breakfast time does not surprise them at all, and her story of a lost latch key is typical of Garry’s regular romantic liaisons.

As she sips her coffee, Mr Essendine makes his cool and calculating entrance downstairs. Debonair in looks and manner, Mark Elstob portrays Garry with perfect poise, parading about in a silk dressing gown, clearly the star performer on and off stage.

This is the start of a series of unexpected guests – theatrical colleagues, his estranged wife Liz, seductive women and an aspiring, fanatical writer - who all seek his attention like bees buzzing around a honeypot.

Joanna: You never get tired of fixing people’s lives, of being the boss, or everybody adoring you, and obeying you ?

Garry: Never. I revel in it.

Written and directed as a classic fast-paced bedroom farce, very little actually happens in terms of a dramatic storyline amid the whirlwind of crazy, self obsessed characters, each with their personal vendetta or pursuit of happiness.

Observing it all is Essendine, who really does not care for the foibles of his theatrical luvvies, but only in himself to ensure his continued popularity and fame as he prepares to travel for a theatre tour in Africa.

Garry’s angst over his 40-something appearance is brilliantly demonstrated by Mark Elstob, who continually preens his slicked-back hair, peering into the mirror whenever the door bell chimes to announce another visitor. He also drapes himself languidly over chairs and the sofa, leading to some hilarious acrobatics without a pause in conversation.

Coward portrays Essendine as the most erudite and experienced when dealing with relationships. His series of one night dalliances with ladies who forget their keys is treated as frivolous and fun – “Don’t love me too much Daphne, I am not free like other men, I belong to the public and to my work.”.

Meanwhile, his friends dabble in adulterous affairs causing distress and marital mayhem.

Now middle aged, perhaps it is time for Garry to keep calm and carry on in a more mature relationship. But which of his beautiful admirers should accompany him to Africa?

John Durnin’s fresh, polished and elegantly dressed production is performed by an excellent ensemble who play it hard and fast for the laughs. At times, the OTT humour and characterisations perhaps overwhelm the subtext about sexual immorality in the world of showbusiness celebrities.

Joyce Grenfell attended the first production in Edinburgh in 1942, starring Noel Coward as Garry Essendine, the role he wrote for and about himself:

“ a perfect piece of escapist froth, quite beautifully played and with such speed and polish. Wildly funny, witty and sometimes wise.”

Just what I would say about this sparkling revival at Pitlochry.


In repertoire until 16 October, 2013

Recommendation for pre-theatre supper:
Victoria's, 45 Atholl Road. 10 minutes walk to theatre.