‘The second half is properly full-on funny’: PRESENT LAUGHTER – Chichester Festival Theatre ★★★

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Chichester Festival Theatre – until 12 May 2018

In the final outburst from our hero Gary Essendine –  silk-dressing-gowned philanderer, arrogantly insecure darling of the West End – his backer Henry reveals that he has booked the Forum Theatre and the actor howls that he cannot do a light French farce in a space like Wembley Stadium.

A similar faint misgiving afflicted me at the thought of this lighter-than-air Noel Coward comedy surviving in this big airy theatre (especially after the cocktail-sharp intimate miniatures of Tonight at 830 in the teeny Jermyn Street Theatre last Sunday). And for much of the first half deep unease persisted. On Alice Power’s detailed, towering, detail-perfect set (some very funny touches) there was shouting. Yelling. Overdoing it to the point of mania.

Didn’t matter with Lizzy Connolly’s ditzy, Sloaney invader of her hero’s apartment, voguing around in his silk pyjamas the morning after “losing her latch-key”. Nor did a bit of extreme upstaging bother me when Tamzin Griffin as the housekeeper repeatedly hobbled around the stage in the manner of Mrs Overall. And Katherine Kingsley as the ex-wife and Tracy-Ann Oberman as Monica the secretary both were as tart, emotionally restrained and deadly on-the-lines as they should be.

But Rufus Hound –  better known as a standup, TV host and fiery left activist – is the oddest possible casting for Essendine! He is thuggish, not smooth, laddish not sophisticated. Coward wrote for the smooth, the clipped, the swish deployer of killer asides. Even Essendine’s dramatic absurdities, designed to fend off clinging girls, are cool Charles-and-Fiona stuff. “There’s something awfully-sed – about heppiness”/“I can’t be free like other men..I belong to my public.” Hound just yells them.    Thus by kicking off at top volume from the start, he leaves himself no space for the real panics into which his entourage throws him as the farce speeds up later.

Ben Allen’s Maule, the obsessed stalker-worshipper,  goes hell-for-leather too,  giving us no time to wonder whether he is as mad as he seems.    Great laugh lines are wasted: at times the first act is like hearing Bach played on kazoo-and-tuba,  or brain surgery in boxing gloves.   When at last Lucy Briggs-Owen sashays on as the man-killing Joanna you sigh with relief: at last a classic classy Coward-cool character, a long streak of slink and scorn and sexual threat. She’s wonderful.

But what begins as a  comedy of manners does turn gradually into true farce,:  wrong people behind doors,  disastrous  revelations of affairs, panic.   And in this area director Sean Foley is wholly reliable: a master when it comes to sofa-bounces,  painful handshakes (an excellent joke here near the end),  and the possibilities of soda-siphons and spilled drinks.   So the second half is properly full-on funny.   And the curtain call is a full-cast rendering of “Why do the wrong people travel?” and a dance. So we all leave happy.

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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves on RssLibby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.

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