by Noel Coward
Directed by Stephen Unwin
Designedby Simon Higlett
Bath Theatre Royal
Monday 28th June 2016, 7.30
Samuel West – Garry Essendine
Daisy Boulton – Daphne Stillington
Elizabeth Holland – Lady Saltburn
Toby Longworth – Henry Lyppiat
Zoe Boyle – Joanna Lyppiat
Patrick Walsh McBride – Roland Maule
Phyllis Logan – Monica, Essendine’s secretary
Martin Hancock – Fred
Rebecca Johnson – Liz Essendine
Jason Morrell – Morris Dixon
My favourite Noel Coward production ever predates this blog. Rik Mayall at this same theatre in Present Laughter in 2003, directed by Dominic Dromgoole before he went to The Globe. Mayall played Garry Essendine, and the special delight was that he played with the role, sent it up, stepped outside it, but just a tad. There was a freedom that I imagine Coward himself would have explored in the role.
Garry Essendine (Samuel West)
Thirteen years on, and Samuel West is in the role with Phyllis Logan (Mrs Hughes, the housekeeper in Downton Abbey) is Monica, his secretary. I’m sure Bath does one Coward play a year.
I found my dog-eared French’s Acting Edition. Not that I was ever in it, but it was one of the regular productions for ELT students before I was involved, and I inherited the several boxes of acting editions. This one has Daphne underlined with my old boss’s handwriting “3 pm on Sunday. I’ll begin with your scene – God willing.” I enjoyed the marginal notes: “WEEP” / (Looks) – why???” / “Change to evening dress.”
The play was destined to be performed in September 1939, just as war broke out, so was cancelled. It was first performed in 1943, but French’s give the incredibly detailed set and prop list for the 1947 production, also starring Noel Coward. The prop list includes several ashtrays, both full and empty, one with “cigarette ends”, cigarette boxes, cigarette cases, matches, lighters and adds “The ashtrays are all large, for business,” Then syphon with one inch of soda, whisky decanter, sherry decanter, martini glasses.
The set: L to R Garry, Roland, Lady Saltburn, Monica, Daphne
The play centres on successful wildly popular actor Garry Essendine who is pursued and caught by multiple admirers and hangers on. We open with young Daphne emerging in his pyjamas having spent the night in the spare room … yet another clichéd classic “explain who we are on the telephone” opening. She met Garry the night before. His housekeeper, Miss Eriksson and valet Fred are unsurprised at her presence. His secretary (or rather PA in modern terms), Monica, is unsurprised too.Their memorable interchange is:
DAPHNE: How wonderful! I expect you know him better than anybody!
MONICA: Less intimately than some. Better than most.
Phyllis Logan delivers that line perfectly, reminding us of her role as Mrs Hughes in Downton Abbey. At last Garry descends from his bedroom, and fends off Daphne’s declarations of love. His estranged wife, Liz, arrives, again unsurprised by the guest. However she has news. Henry and Morris, his two business managers (producer and agent, I guess) are due. Joanna, the gorgeous sexy wife of Henry, is having an affair with Morris. The next arrival is Roland Maule, a young would-be playwright who has seen Garry’s recent play 47 times and adores him.
L to R: Monica (Phyllis Logan), Liz, Garry’s wife (Rebecca Johnstone), Roland (Patrick Walsh McBride), Fred the valet (Martin Hancock)
Garry is clearly a comic version of Noel Coward himself writ even larger than life. The Roland-Garry interchange is the heart of the play, with Coward sending himself up as both an actor and a playwright (and later he gets sent up as a musician too when Joanna declines to hear him play piano). Throughout the play, Garry is told that he never stops acting, so that he acts in all his real life relationships.
ROLAND: I suppose you’ll say that Shakespeare wrote for the commercial theatre … Every play you appear in is exactly the same – superficial, frivolous without the slightest intellectual significance … All you do with your talent is wear dressing gowns and make witty remarks …
Later we get a string of theatre in-jokes … “it’s like a French farce” … (doorbell rings) “I suppose that’s the Lord Chamberlain” (i.e. theatre censor).
The sexy Joanna turns up once Garry’s got rid of them and proceeds to seduce him. The second half mirrors the first, but now the arrogant Joanna is in pyjamas and dressing gown, demanding coffee for breakfast, waiting for Garry to come downstairs. Lady Saltburn arrives with her niece for an audition, and the niece turns out to be the young fan Daphne from scene one.
Then the farce elements run riot with Garry on his way to tour Africa, and one by one Daphne, Roland, Joanna and Liz turn up and announce they love him and they’ve bought tickets and they’re going with him. Garry manages to get Roland and Daphne in different rooms, has a showdown with Joanna, Morris and Henry … and finally escapes them all with Liz. Coward put a lot of his own thoughts and morality into that showdown scene.
The play is like The Importance of Being Earnest and Private Lives in that it’s funny and works, even if you sit around a table and read it aloud. As with all Coward plays, directors find it unthinkable to change the time frame, the all-white cast or the elaborate set. Coward writes too much period detail, I think, or rather the period is recent enough and filmed enough for us to have a fixed idea of what places and people look like. The Acting Edition gives a ludicrously detailed set layout, which while it wasn’t followed here, was stylistically similar. The one piece of impressive lighting design was when the shutters were opened along the stage left wall and daylight apparently flooded in. The set lacked the sense of style that designers usually go for with Coward. It looked too drawing room comedy for me. I’d expect Garry Essendine to have fabulously avant garde (for 1939) furniture.
Our problem was that we have seen Present Laughter three or four times before, and the Rik Mayall version was indelible. It all rests on the interpretation of Garry. Samuel West played him as real, and in a subtle understated way. He was beleaguered, driven to distraction. Yes, he did all the over-theatrical responses and gestures demanded by the script on cue … his delivery was superb, if a little quiet, but somehow he just didn’t capture the comedy or the flamboyance. It needed to be larger for us, certainly more camp as well as simply theatrical. Years ago, the (great) Chiwetel Ejiofor had a similar problem in Noel Coward’s The Vortex, directed by Michael Grandage at the Donmar Warehouse … he did everything right, but ignored that element of sexual ambiguity that is intrinsic in these Coward central roles. Roland the Playwright adores him … this Garry just looks irritated. Others were trying to remember if he had ever slept with Roland.
In some ways, you realize that Noel Coward and Rik Mayall had the advantage of being “popular stars” rather than, or as well as, highly respected and admired actors, like West. That genuine “I will be recognized in the street” quality that is not simply acting ability, but public profile. Samuel West might be recognized in Bath or Chichester or the South Bank, but not in Hartlepool or Brockenhurst. As I said at the beginning, and it goes back to a Mark Rylance quote on Shakespeare, there is something special about comedians and great comic actors, and part of it is the ability to play the role AND keep your own perceived personality present in the role. Rylance was saying that the great Shakespeare clowns would not have been confined by the script, nor to the script. Mayall certainly let his TV characters shine below his version of Garry, because the role was given his edge of wildness and unpredictability. Samuel West acted the script in a rich and highly competent way, but lacked that natural comic edge. If I were casting it tomorrow, I’d be looking for a David Walliams profile, or similar.
Monica (Pyllis Logan) and Garry Essendine (Samuel West)
Phyllis Logan was a well-cast Monica … we were shocked to hear not a trace of Mrs Hughes’ Scottish accent though. Good support all round, and I’m glad the director made it work while ignoring some unnecessary physical descriptions in the original text (Morris is tall and good looking with a touch of grey at the temples in the script). Jason Morell was a very funny over-emotional (and later “tired and emotional”) Morris. The part of Roland Maule is a gem on the page, and Patrick Walshe McBride embellished it and played it large … which is just what it needed. He was outstanding. Those two male parts stood out because they exuded energy. Zoe Boyle was a powerfully seductive Joanna. Daisy Boulton’s Daphne was suitably innocent and admiring… great fainting scene. Rebecca Johnstone’s Liz was cool, controlled amid the mayhem.
But in the end … the production under-achieved for us as a whole. We felt it was pedestrian. The play is well-oiled enough to be an entertaining evening whatever, and the support cast is great, so you will enjoy it if you can go. It stands and falls on the central role, and unfortunately that falls. Too understated. Often recently I’ve blamed elderly audiences, but this was a good cross section of ages in an evening performance, and gave appreciative whoops at the end.
Sound effects … in the first scene we wondered about the constant intrusive bird noises and thought it was because it was morning. Then as they emerged again in later scenes, we thought “Why have they got seagulls in a night scene?” It would appear that real seagulls were outside the theatre. I know this because my car was covered in seagull strike.
* * *
1947 set design for Present Laughter, Haymarket Theatre, London (from 16th April 1947)
Another year, another four play summer season programme at Bath. Everyone complains about it every year. It’s such a bad idea. You always forget to bring it to subsequent plays. Worse is that all the actor bios in all four productions are mixed up in alphabetical order at the back. OK, it’s cheap at £4, but not if you’re only going to the one. I’d far prefer one per production.
The technology is so good now for on stage cigarettes. Tons of smoking on stage,but nary a whiff. Actually, in Noel Coward, you somehow miss the constant acrid reek.
STEPHEN UNWIN (DIRECTOR) on this blog:
This Happy Breed, by Noel Coward, Bath Theatre Royal, 2011