Present Laughter

'Present Laughter' at the Gate Theatre. Photo: Martin Nolan

'Present Laughter' at the Gate Theatre. Photo: Martin Nolan

Written in 1939, Noël Coward’s drawing-room farce focuses on the life of aging matinée idol Garry Essendine (Brennan). Just weeks before he is due to tour in Africa, Essendine becomes a victim of his own vanity and posturing, as women and men throw themselves at his feet, marvelling at his good looks and talent, and insisting on tagging along. Flattered, but exhausted, the caddish actor increasingly despairs of public life, seeking refuge among his more pragmatic inner circle of friends that includes his erstwhile wife (Jefferson) and loyal secretary (Bell).

Brennan is suitably sly and charming as Essendine, rarely avoiding the mirror as he pivots from one ardent fan to the next. He has built a career on making the public love him, and now suffers the consequences. While we might strain to read this as a comment on celebrity culture, it more accurately reflects Coward’s personal disaffection at the time of the play’s writing. Indeed, we might well read Essendine as a version of the playwright himself, not least of all given that Coward played the lead role in the drama’s first production. However, written just before the outbreak of WWII, and first produced in 1942, what passes without mention in the script now appears much more interesting than that which is described.

Around Essendine, a bevy of well-dressed beauties battle for attention. First up, the naïve debutante Daphne (Yourell) tries to get closer to the star by pretending to have lost her latchkey after she meets him at a party. Successfully duping him, she manages to spend the night in one of the spare rooms. Joanna (O’Shaughnessy) repeats the tactic soon after, using the opportunity to confess her undying love to an exasperated, but ultimately persuaded, Essendine. She too enjoys a sleepover, complicated by the arrival of her husband Henry (Ford) and company the following day.

O’Shaughnessy’s haughty femininity verges on camp as she swaggers across the set, all pout, cleavage, and affectation. She is both terrifying and captivating in the role, occasionally eyeballing an overly-invested member of the audience. Yourell is equally impressive as Daphne, and what her character lacks in the art of seduction she makes up for in elocution. While many of the laughs are of the polite “hardy har har har” variety, Bell’s wry Scottish secretary Monica, and Kavanagh’s eccentric playwright Roland Maule win some full-bodied responses. Playing the Swedish housekeeper Miss Erikson, Barbara Brennan also raises a few chuckles, although her accent frequently floats closer to the Atlantic than the Baltic Sea.

Despite all the twists and turns that we associate with this kind of play, design is the unwavering centre of attention. Ably assisted by Peter O’Brien and Eileen Diss, director Alan Stanford has taken Coward’s play about a despondent luvvie and turned it into a show about dresses and soft furnishings. This is not necessarily a criticism but the most fitting treatment for a work that has little else to offer. Diss draws on a beige, cream, and black palette, filling the stage with a sweeping staircase, a large window, a piano, and period furniture. While the overall effect is lavish, when many performers are on the stage at once, the set appears cramped, and you wonder if Stanford has forgotten about his actors altogether.

Peter O’Brien’s sumptuous dresses, documented in the programme note, ultimately steal the show. The female leads wear a different gown in nearly every scene, and when the familiar plot structure begins to tire in the second half, the costumes do well to hold our interest. However, we need more from theatre than puffed sleeves and tucked bodices. Despite some fine performances, with so much style and so little substance, you can’t help thinking that some window-shopping would have been a cheaper, briefer, and equally satisfying alternative.

  • Review
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Present Laughter by Noël Coward

14 July – 5 September, 2009

Produced by The Gate Theatre
In The Gate Theatre

Directed by Alan Stanford

Costume design: Peter O’Brien

Set design: Eileen Diss

Lighting design: James McConnell

Sound design: Denis Clohessy

With: Fiona Bell, Barbara Brennan, Stephen Brennan, Susan FitzGerald, Michael James Ford, Peter Gaynor, John Kavanagh, Paris Jefferson, Dermot Magennis, Fiona O'Shaughnessy and Jade Yourell