Laughter is Present in every line in Noel Coward’s comic masterpiece at Cambridge Arts Theatre
- Credit: ©Nobby Clark Photographer
This is far and away the best production Cambridge Arts Theatre has staged this year and possibly the funniest and slickest in its 80-year history.
Noel Coward’s comic masterpiece, Present Laughter is like a piece of jazz. It’s fast, it has a tight, beating rhythm. Every line has to hit the right note. And the music doesn’t stop.
Though Coward’s writing is elegant, the wit and humour rests on tone and perfect timing. This cast achieves that supremely. There is not one flat moment in this rocket of a show, directed by Stephen Unwin.
The performances are scintillating. The characterisation is inspired. This is a masterclass is how to take the divine and make it sublime.
Coward, who wrote and starred in the play in the 1930s, said he had created for himself a bravura part. He called the play “a potent mixture of self-exposure and self-celebration”. It’s certainly potent. Done like this, it’s unforgettable. You can see why they called Coward “The Master”.
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The leading man he created for himself is actor Garry Essendine – a theatrical god who worships at the altar of his genius and therefore understands absolutely when others do. He tries to be gracious about the constant stream of admirers but sometimes finds it tedious tripping over them. We’ve all been there.
Samuel West is superb in this gargantuan role. His tone and comic timing glide seamlessly through it - on silk like Essendine’s dressing gowns. They’re from Paris. It’s French dressing.
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Essendine is a wonderful satire on the simple, childlike self-obsession that actors have. It can be endearing.
When ending a one-night relationship with a young admirer he recites a poem by Shelley – and when she demurs, he stops her interrupting before he has finished the verse.
Phyllis Logan as Essendine’s secretary Monica gives an understated, relaxed performance that had the audience laughing gleefully at her ironic responses to his egoism. She carries us delicately through the play. Seeing someone so at ease with what they do so well puts a smile in your heart.
Coward’s supporting roles are glittering gems for those who understand them. Daisy Boulton is perfect as Daphne Stillington, the star-struck young girl, fixated on Essendine who gets her aunt to take her to him on the pretext of an audition so he can recommend her for a place at “the RADA”. Her earnestness is wonderful.
Essendine protests that he hasn’t got time to see “people’s nieces”, a lovely, theatrical in joke about how some casting directors seem to rely entirely on them.
Sally Tatum is a scream as the Swedish maid, Miss Erikson. Her voice, facial expressions and body language are a privilege to see. She has really picked up this part and run off with it, creating a definitive version.
Patrick Walshe McBride as would-be playwright, Roland Maule, obsessed with Essendine, is indescribable really. His geek is gorgeous, his very own hilarious invention. It has to be seen.
All the performances are so strong, that even these do not upstage the others. Rebecca Johnson as, Garry’s wife Liz, Martin Hancock as Fred his servant, Toby Longworth and Jason Morell as Henry and Morris his friends, Zoe Boyle as flame-haired seductress Joanna and Elizabeth Holland as Lady Saltburn (the aunt) all create the enchanting world that is this play.
The laughter is present in every line.