Chichester Festival Theatre – until 12 May 2018
If you’re going to hand over the reins of a droll Noël Coward comedy to Sean Foley then you will be sure of one thing – it’ll be a hoot. What it isn’t going to be is a traditional Coward, packed with witty subtlety or, as the writer himself described it, a light comedy in three acts.
Present Laughter, which opened Festival 2018 at Chichester Festival Theatre is hilariously funny with standout turns by a cast hired because of their proven track record. Rufus Hound, Katherine Kingsley and Tracy-Ann Oberman are renowned comic actors and they are eye-wateringly funny. But comedy is very subjective. There were a few huffs from elderly audience members who were disappointed not to be seeing a traditional Coward. I couldn’t have been more pleased. I loved every silly moment of it.
Foley has turned subtlety on its head and come up with a riotous farce complete with slamming doors, dodgy set, pratfalls and hysteria. Hound, physical comedy a speciality, aces it as the egocentric thesp Garry Essendine who yearns for a quiet life and instead finds himself in the epicentre of a maelstrom.
Coward apparently wrote the role for himself and there is a lot of autobiographical references in the character. The silk dressing gown, the vanity, the loucheness. Hound, I’m guessing, is more likely to be slobbing around in trackies at home and, though clean-shaven and scrubbed up for the production, doesn’t have the playwright’s innate style to pull off the suave costume. Gone too is the affected Coward voice. This, my darling, is vintage comedy reinvented for a new generation.
The show opens with the wonderfully vibrant Daphne Stillington, all horsey braying laugh, lisp and schoolgirl giggles, chatting by telephone to friend Cynthia (where have those names disappeared to?) about her overnight stay a the home of her idol, the preening, arch, self-obsessed actor, Essendine.
But in the cold light of day the star can barely remember her name. The machine that has become his life is already in full swing and he is consumed.
Cynical secretary, Monica (Oberman), is efficiently tackling the mountain of mail and taking calls, quirky housekeeper, Miss Erikson (Tamsin Griffin stealing all her scenes with a bizarre, rolling, gait) is refusing to answer the door, and estranged wife, Liz Essendine (Kingsley) has arrived to discuss Garry’s upcoming tour to Africa.
If things weren’t hectic enough there’s the unexpected arrival of eccentric and thrusting young author, Roland Maule (Ben Allen playing the psychosis as deadpan as possible), Garry’s business partners, Morris and Henry, and, slinking in and looking stunning in black, Henry’s foxy wife, Joanna, who is having an affair with Henry but has set her sights on Garry.
Got it? No wonder Garry wishes for a quiet moment to read a book and collect his thoughts.
As the play progresses Hound becomes more unhinged, his initial debonair demeanour giving way to hysterical rants as he struggles to juggle the demands of everyone, including the advances of the voracious Joanna (Lucy Briggs-Owen).
Lizzy Connelly is sublime as the daffy Daphne who has aspirations of becoming an actress.
Katherine Kingsley is, as always, terrific as the wife Garry can’t shake off.
I loathed the chain-smoking throughout the show by the ladies. I know that they were using e-cigarettes (what would The Master have felt about that?) but it is terribly distracting. Kingsley is constantly engulfed in a fug of smoke, lighting one fag after another. A homage too far.
Yes the show is a bit jokey and, as one critic has said, cartoonish, but perhaps that is just what audiences want. You can’t say that it isn’t entertaining and isn’t that what audiences pay for – a night of entertainment?
It tickled my funny bone. A super season opener by Chichester.