BBC Radio 4, 6 April 2013
Written in the late 1940s, Present
Laughter proved a notable success for Noel Coward after the failure of his previous two musical plays, Pacific 1860
and Ace of Clubs. He was still a star; having spent
over two decades at the top of his profession, he could behave how he wished, in the secure knowledge that his loyal band
of close friends would support him through thick and thin. Nonetheless Present Laughter represents a bold step,
as Coward - through the central character Garry Essendine - consciously made fun of himself as a so-called 'sophisticated'
West End star about to embark on a tour of Africa.
The success or failure of this play - whether performed on stage or on radio - depends very
much on the central performance. In Celia de Wolff's jaunty production, Samuel West did not disappoint. Here was
an actor very much in love with himself and his public image, who readily seduced women by quoting gobbets from his previous
stage successes. For the most part he was extremely successful in his conquests, especially when they were much younger
Nonetheless Garry did have his weaker side; he became increasingly conscious of his advancing years, and certainly
did not like to be left alone. He placed considerable trust in his long-suffering secretary Monica (Frances Barber)
- a fictionalized version of Coward's long-time companion Lorne Loraine - who, although not actually in love with him, was
seldom absent from his side. Despite his behavioural shortcomings, West's Garry was fun to be with; the kind
of person who could brighten up even the dullest day with his flights of verbal rhetoric.
While Present Laughter is primarily a one-person show, it nonetheless offers a series
of memorable cameo roles. Freddie Fox's Roland Maule came across as the star-struck writer with a strong homosexual
attraction to Garry. In the theatre of the late 1940s, where the Lord Chamberlain's Office still held sway, this
kind of love was publicly frowned upon; hence Garry could not reciprocate, even if he had wanted to. While Liz
Essendine (Jamie Dee), liked to call herself Garry's estranged wife, it was clear that she was equally attracted to him; the
reconciliation between the two of them at the end of the play was virtually inevitable. Initially Lady Saltburn (Sarah
Badel) came across as a Lady Bracknell-esque figure, but she was soon softened by Garry's evident charm.
De Wolff's production emphasized this quality of charm; whatever we might feel about Garry
and his intimate circle, we cannot help but like them. There remains a kind of innocence about them; in spite of their
threats, they never harm anyone - not even themselves.