19 July 2019
Noel Coward completed writing PRESENT LAUGHTER in six days – but had to put it’s stage debut on hold for 3 years as war broke out as it went into rehearsal. Finally opening in 1942 it starred Coward, and as he acknowledged, playing a version of himself; the self-obsessed actor Garry Essendine. As he plans a tour to Africa Essendine is beset with fans, relationship problems and concerns over his own inadequacies.
Essendine is a monster of a role and not one for a timid actor to undertake. Alec Fellows-Bennett is certainly not timid and although Coward’s acting generally displayed a lightness of touch, this is a performance with all guns blazing. A high-octane piece of acting in which the actor makes full use of his large catalogue of facial expressions. Most of the other characters can’t tell when Essendine is being genuine or when he is acting; the audience have the same issue which makes him both frustrating and a little annoying – not someone you can sympathise with. But it is a barnstorming performance nonetheless.
There is a very strong supporting cast. Claire Louise Amias is excellent as Essendine’s strong-minded wife who knows just how to organise him. In my favourite role, Emily Outred is elegance and efficiency personified as Garry’s secretary Monica – a jewel of a performance with some of the best lines in the play. Joseph Clowser offers the audience a masterful cameo as the wide-eyed, rather odd fan, Roland Maule – all wide-smiling and fidgety – wonderful. James Pellow and Hilary Harwood (with an extraordinary accent) give plenty of laughs as the valet and housekeeper respectively. Sian Morgan is spot-on as the slightly air-headed girl in love with her idol and Hannah Lee has huge fun as the bitchy Joanna. Paul Cleveland and Christopher Lyne both offer strong support as Essendine’s business associates – small roles filled with strong actors.
Andrew Beckett’s set is an Art Deco delight with nods here and there to the Ancient World, it is a real work of art – matched by the stylish costumes by Janet Huckle – perfect.
Andrew Beckett also directed the production and knows his Coward – the audience were allowed to wallow in the wordsmithery, the bon mots and verbal jousting which makes him so well loved. I wonder if the pace may have flagged a little towards the end and even with an 8pm start, 10.45pm just feels a little late to be leaving the theatre.
However, this remains a treat for all to enjoy. Coward performed badly is tortuous – performed well it is to witness real talent at work. This was very well performed!
CAST & CREATIVES
GARRY ESSENDINE – ALEC FELLOWS-BENNETT
LIZ ESSENDINE – CLAIRE LOUISE AMIAS
DAPHNE STILLINGTON – SIAN MORGAN
ROLAND MAULE – JOSEPH CLOWSER
MORRIS DIXON – PAUL CLEVELAND
HENRY LYPPIAT – CHRISTOPHER LYNE
JOANNA LYPPIAT – HANNAH LEE
MONICA REED – EMILY OUTRED
MISS ERIKSON/LADY SALTBURN – HILARY HARWOOD
FRED – JAMES PELLOW
WRITER – NOEL COWARD
DIRECTOR – ANDREW BECKETT
DESIGN – ANDREW BECKETT
LIGHTING & SOUND OPERATION & DESIGN – STAGE TECHNICAL SERVICES LTD.
COTUME SUPERVISOR – JANET HUCKLE
SEASON PRODUCERS – PAUL TAYLOR-MILLS, STUART BURROWS, JONNY CLINES