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If you’re a Rik Mayall fan, you’re in luck. If not, you may find yourself at odds with the actor and comedian’s interpretation of Garry Essendine in the current tour of Noel Coward’s Present Laughter.
Coward wrote it shortly before the outbreak of war in September 1939. The first half of the decade had given the West End some of his most delightful plays including Private Lives which opened the Phoenix Theatre in 1930. By the late 1930s, however, his star had dimmed rather. Although he produced Tonight at 8.30, an evening of one-act plays that includes Still Life (the original stage version of Brief Encounter), it took This Happy Breed, Present Laughter, and stirring war films like In Which We Serve, to restore the full bloom to his celebrity.
The original opening night of Present Laughter was set for 11th September 1939 in Manchester but rehearsals were abandoned when the playwright was sent first to France and then to America to work for the government in the lead-up to Hitler’s invasion of Poland. The comedy, rather more reflective than some of the others, would not come into the West End until April 1943 when it opened in repertoire with This Happy Breed at the Haymarket. Sixty years on and Dominic Dromgoole’s production is enjoying excellent houses.
The main character, West End star Garry Essendine, is preparing for a tour of Africa, trying to fend off determined mistress Joanna who is married to one of his producers, an obsessive would-be playwright by the name of Roland Maule, and an aspiring actress who thinks she’s in love with Garry. Without the help and support of his spouse Liz, from whom he is separated but on excellent terms, and his personal assistant, Monica, his life would utterly defeat him.
The character is more Coward than any other he wrote for himself: a selfish, self-aggrandizing, flamboyant and charismatic matinée idol with a penchant for petulance. Skating on the thin ice between ‘real’ and ‘ham’ is Essendine’s forté but not, alas, Mayall’s. I am certainly not advocating that Coward’s plays be served in aspic with clipped accents in the supposed ‘Coward style’ and much can be achieved by shaking things up, but to wrap the playing of such a part around an amalgam of Rick, Richie and Alan B’Stard – all forward thrusts of the hips, pointing fingers at arms’ length and lips spluttering with saliva – destroys much of Coward’s coruscating dialogue, and brings an unnecessarily coarse feel to the evening. The audience laughs at the slapstick elements of Mayall’s performance (they are understandably less sure when he runs his hands overtly over Kim Thomson’s bosom in one of the seduction scenes), but the irony and wit for which Coward has always been famous is too often missing.
This is a shame as there are moments when what lies beneath Mayall’s exuberant physicality gives promise of an interesting, real and ultimately riotous performance of a monstrous character. What we actually get might suit a twenty-first century setting but fits very uneasily into Coward’s 1930s theatre world. This Essendine is too selfish, too self-pitying and only occasionally charming; I doubt any one of his devotées would have remained at his beck and call, let alone nursed a desire to accompany such a man on tour.
Offsetting Mayall’s antics is Caroline Harker’s enchanting performance as Garry’s wife. She is the backbone of this man, and it is in Harker’s Liz, as well as Pooky Quesnel’s Monica and Kim Thomson’s Joanna, that we are treated to the comedy inherent in the script, delivered with delectable timing by Harker and Quesnel in particular. These are the belly laughs for me, not the overdone tantrums and the Bottom posturing.
Gerrard McArthur (Morris) and John Dougall (Henry, husband to Joanna) are similarly able to play the lines with gusto, without resorting to caricature; McArthur as Morris is especially watchable and, whether expressing sorrowful disappointment at the news that his passion for Joanna will end in nothing, or executing a falling roll over the chaise longue, his performance gives rise to ‘much hilarity and mirth’.
William Mannering plays Roland Maule as a stalker so obsessed with his idol that it distorts the shape and movement of his body. Amusing to start with, the latter half of the performance is too mannered and competes with, rather than complements, the general mêlée. Meanwhile, Sally Bretton, best-known as Donna in The Office, gives a charming, not to say touching, performance as Daphne, full of youth’s confidence, in love with her idea of Garry Essendine and duped like so many women by his charm. The performance is the funnier for its basis in truth.
Behind the Essendine charm, of course, is the insecure man who needs to chase one woman after another to feel sure of himself, and for fear of being alone. And this is the nub: the one thing that does come through Mayall’s performance is a sense of loss, a regret at the passing of time not just from the standpoint of vanity – regret and loss that speaks of Coward’s own. If the actor could have imbued the flamboyant face of his character with a truth, it would have been a far funnier and engaging performance. It is as if, like Essendine, Mayall feels he has to resort to his familiar and practised physical traits as a performer to ensure a positive response from the audience. Or perhaps this is why he was cast.
There is a great deal of joy to be had from Dromgoole’s tightly directed production, even if Rik Mayall is not your preferred cocktail and your heart sinks at the sight of a set that looks like bad art deco pastiche crammed into a council flat as opposed to an elegant 1930s apartment. The artistic director of the Oxford Playhouse has fun with his actors, and has also brought out and made sense of those homosexual elements, clear in the subtext but suppressed in earlier productions, which bring a more believable feel to the whole piece and point up the comedy.
Coward was not in favour of the ‘message’ play but one is clear, all the same, for ‘What is love? ’tis not hereafter; Present mirth hath present laughter; What’s to come is still unsure…’ In other words, carpe diem.
Sarah Vernon © March 2003
Originally published on R&V on 05-03-03
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