‘Present Laughter’ is a comic farcical play written by Sir Noël Peirce Coward in only six days of May 1939. However, the play was not produced until 1942 because of the theatres closing due to the Second World War. During the War Coward worked in the Propaganda Office and then for the Secret Service – amusing with a name like ‘coward’ and his use of the German umlaut above the ‘e’ in his name – before entertaining the troupes.
This popular and well-written play with its themes of fame, desire and loneliness are exactly what was required to cheer up the nation after years of hardship. Coward starred as the original Garry as did Albert Finney, Donald Sinden, George C. Scott and Kevin Kline.
A wonderful version of this semi-autobiographical play – whose name comes from the line “present mirth hath present laughter” in Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’ – can be seen at the heritage-listed Old Mill Theatre on the corner of Mends Street and Mill Point Road in South Perth (opposite the Windsor Hotel and Australia Post).
The two-and-a-half-hours of splendid classic comedy in the inimitable style of Coward can be seen at 7.30 pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays until Saturday 12th October. Matinées on Sunday 29th September and 6th October at 2.00 pm.
The Scene: The mid 1940s at Garry Essendine’s Sloan Square flat in London. An area still famous for its yuppie Sloan Rangers.
The Set: was designed by David Cotgreave, who always thinks outside the square. Here he has produced a white skeleton set, mainly comprising wide white architraves and beautifully moulded 20 cms skirting. A touch of luxury which was most effective in the absence of plasterboard walls and pictures. The room corners were marked by simple vertical white wood strips. There was a double picture window. The panelled doors were white with brass fittings. At the rear of the stage was a short staircase to the bedrooms, and a vestibule to the front door. Other doors led to the spare bedroom and an office.
The set was built by David Cotgreave, Mark Nicholson and Lindsay Crane; and painted by Mark Nicholson, Sarah Christiner, Jeremy Heenan, Peter Clark, Grace Hitchin and Barry Park.
The furniture included a drinks table, an oak grand piano and a resplendent luxury, large cream-suede armchair and matching two-seater settee. There was a telephone table behind the settee. There were many fabulous props of the ‘40s supplied by Grace Hitchin, Jenny Howard and the cast.
Mark Nicholson’s quality lighting design was supervised by John Woolrych and slickly operated by Callum Hunter.
Soundscape design included Overture music by the Mantovani or Frank Chacksfield strings. The sound operator was Martyn Churcher.
The show was stage managed by Mark Fitzpatrick and his assistant Lindsay Crane, who were fast efficient and silent.
It is mid-morning in the studio flat of the famous, yet insecure, lecherous playwright and actor, Garry Essendine (Peter Clark), when a young and beautiful admirer, Daphne Stillington (Tarryn McGrath) emerges from the spare room wearing Garry’s pyjamas. When the doddery old retainer, Swedish housekeeper Miss Erikson (Grace Hitchin) shuffles in to clean the room, she is followed by Essendine’s disdainful and longsuffering secretary, Monica Reed (Jenny Howard) carrying fan mail. Daphne asks if someone could call Garry to come down – they are horrified – he never rises until mid-day.
The chirpy young Cockney valet, Fred (Declan Waters) walks through the room carrying some fresh towels and a rubber duck for Garry’s bath. Although famous Garry seemed to be still lacking confidence and is childlike, after being repressed by most people around him.
Eventually, Garry staggers downstairs only to find his estranged wife, Liz (Nyree Hughes) waiting for him. She is accustomed to her husband’s romantic infidelities and sympathises with young Daphne who returns to the spare bedroom and later emerges wearing a stunning powder-blue satin ballgown. As she is leaving the flat, the producer of Garry’s plays Henry Lyppiatt (Dean McAskil) arrives with his glitzy wife Joanna (Grace Edwards) and Garry’s philandering manager, Morris Dixon (Nigel Goodwin) to discuss their next production.
The doorbell rings – it is an aspiring but totally mad playwright, Roland Maule (Thomas Dimmick) who has a play for Garry’s consideration. Then the wealthy aristocrat, Lady Saltburn (Meredith Hunter) arrives with her nubile daughter, also for Garry’s consideration. Can this randy actor escape from his complex life?
Like so many of Cowards plays, despite its age this comedy still as fresh and funny today, another of his ‘entertaining evergreens’. Coward has a genre of his own and there are few actors who can carry off the suave dry wit required for each leading man. Peter Clark had every subtle nuance in this glorious classic comedy performed perfectly.
Involved in theatre since the 1970s, director Barry who is recognised as a Coward aficionado, has presented numerous award-winning productions, from his Best Play and Best Director of ‘Madame Butterfly’ to acclaimed serious plays like ‘August: Osage County’ and even madcap pantomimes.
The most important point in producing a play is to select the cast carefully. Here we have one of the best rehearsed casts that I have seen for months. Not only word perfect but every actor understood what they were saying and the best style of delivery to ensure the greatest pleasure for the audience. The teamwork was outstanding. The comic timing flawless and the pace galloped for the show’s full 150-minutes. Every character was superbly written, each was richly created, all with very different personalities. Fabulous performances, but relative newcomer Thomas Dimmick was ‘disturbingly’ good.
The costumes by the Jenny Prosser and Nyree Hughes’ costumière team were not simply a few quickly selected outfits. The well-tailored garments came with harmonising nail varnish (as ‘polish’ was called in those days), with matching handbags, shoes, hats and gloves. Every item had been chosen carefully. Often in plays shoes are forgotten items, but here we have genuine 1940’s two-toned, wing tipped leather shoes, with white plus the relevant corresponding colour. The accessories of the day, large pearl necklaces, diamanté hair clips. The costumes were impeccable, oozing wealth – except for the ‘bag lady’ maid, Miss Erikson, with her hairnet and rollers, white linen gloves, horrendous overall and that cigarette welded to her bottom lip – a fabulous creation.
A warning this extremely funny show was almost sold out before opening night so get in quickly for the valuable remaining tickets or pay scalpers’ prices. One of Coward’s best plays immaculately presented by all concerned.