Present Laughter

Published April 17, 2008

It is tough being a popular matinee idol. Everyone thinks they know you, they clamour to be in your presence or in your bed and who are you to turn away such adulation. That would be rude, wouldn't it? Garry Essendine is one such thespian around whom the world revolves in Noël Coward's Present Laughter, currently being staged at the National's Lyttelton theatre for the first time. Matthew Amer was in the first night audience.

If not the world, then certainly a collection of lives revolve around middle-aged actor Essendine; those of his servants, his secretary and the close group of friends who are also his business associates. His general philandering – any star-struck filly in a skirt – is a touch straining on relationships, but a fling with a more pivotal woman threatens to blow his world apart.

Coward's comedy, directed here by Howard Davies, who adds physical joviality to Coward's linguistic wit, is a light affair packed with laughs. Set in 1939 on the eve of the Second World War, it is bound to have a happy ending even though the bombs are beginning to go off around Europe.

Alex Jennings's Essendine, a loveably lazy, self-centred thespian, prone to performing as part of his everyday life, is countered and controlled at every turn by his secretary Monica (a gloriously non-plussed, dry-witted Sarah Woodward), and is pulled out of scrapes by his unflappable wife Liz (Sara Stewart).

The production is at its best when it teeters on the edge of farce; a former conquest tucked in one room, an obsessive and remarkably strong fan who is as unhinged as a broken door (Pip Carter, oozing dangerous craziness) in the other.

Behind the laughter, in the rare moments that Essendine is alone, there is a glimpse of the pain he blusters over – the lack of a 'normal' life and the need for real, honest company – and at that pivotal moment, when Essendine must decide whether to abstain from a possible friendship-destroying tryst, Jennings and Lisa Dillon (Joanna) stalk each other like tentative boxers.

All is played out on Tim Hatley's opulently cluttered, harshly angular drawing room set.

Present Laughter is currently booking at the National until 9 January.

MA