Winning wit and wisdom

By Ian Shuttleworth

Noël Coward’s Present Laughter is much harder to do well than it may appear. the protagonist, vain actor Garry Essendine, has to seem actorly without going way over the top, and on various occasions to let the audience see that he is handing a line to some admirer (whether artistic or romantic) without over-egging it so that the recipient would be a booby not to notice. another character says of him, ‘all you
do is wear dressing gowns and make witty remarks.’ yet on occasion, he also has to attain an underlying sincerity. and most of the rest of the cast have to get at least some way along the same contradictory road with him.

I’m very fond of the play, but I’d never seen this central paradox pulled off flawlessly. Until now.

Enter two experienced comedians. sean Foley used to perform as half of the right stuff, far and away the funniest comedy act I’ve ever seen, but in the last decade or so has turned his prodigious skills and precision to directing. rufus hound you’d probably recognise from TV presenting and panel shows, but since appearing in one man, two Guvnors he’s moved increasingly from stand-up to comic acting. the first directs, the second plays
Essendine, and the result is a treat.

Foley has not just a bulging dossier of moves, looks, suggestions and so on, but also an innate understanding of the craft of comedy, in particular, that it needs to be taken seriously by actors and characters alike, especially when matters turn to outright farce. hound has a gift for being playful without toying with his material or the audience. When he goes all florid it’s Essendine taking the mickey out of himself, not hound caricaturing a 1940s thesp.

The rest of the company rise to the occasion also. Essendine’s scene with his producer’s wife, which goes beyond flirtation into ‘provocative skirmishing’, is a delight, with both hound and Lucy Briggs-Owen playing on several levels at once, but neither being trivial about the matter. and as a succession of annoying visitors and too-determined lovers are squirrelled away offstage in Essendine’s spare room or office, the seriousness and split-second crispness of farce are displayed to glorious effect. even a clutch of soda- siphon gags come off as fresh.

I caught a distinct right stuff echo when young daphne flung herself in romantic despair full-length on to the settee, only to bounce off it and land flat-out on the carpet. and at a couple of moments on press night, Tracy-Ann Oberman as Essendine’s unflappable secretary was herself flapped into giggles by hound... yet all without either of them breaking the crucial illusion of sincerity. Surely the West end beckons.

Until 12 May at the Chichester Festival Theatre, West Sussex, 01243-781312, www.cft.org.uk

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