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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National Theatre (Lyttelton)

By Matt Wolf

Theatrical lightning hasn't quite struck twice in the new National Theatre revival of Present Laughter, which reteams Noel Coward with Howard Davies six years after the director garnered deserved raves with a Private Lives that won plaudits and various trophies both sides of the pond. The revelation then was to lay bare the erotic ache beneath the surface zing of Coward at his most urbane. With Alan Rickman and especially the divine Lindsay Duncan in the epigrammatic hot seat, the production was what one least expects from Coward: extraordinarily poignant. Much the same method has here been applied to a longer, rangier, more inevitably solipsistic piece, and the result satisfies in fits and starts. If Alex Jennings brings his characteristic skill to the closest Coward ever came to putting himself overtly on stage, Present Laughter places two hurdles in its way. For one thing, this play has a larger cast and more diffuse focus than Private Lives, while some ineffectual supporting performances let the production down. More to the point is that Present Laughter can't quite sustain the affective scalpel brought to it by Davies and co., who mine the loneliness that courses through this study in sociability run rampant without concealing its wayward structure and first-act longueurs.

Some may wonder what has happened to such old-fashioned conventions as plot, which is to point to just one of the ways that Coward rewrote the rule book. Fashioning a scenario that in some ways amounts to Hay Fever in reverse - here, it's the host who leaves his own home in order to flee a surfeit of guests - Coward across three hours replaces narrative with a character study that functions at once as the author's very own hymn to himself and also as self-critique.

Garry Essendine is a matinee idol who has admirers swooning at every turn, but beneath the badinage lies the suggestion that this man who exists in the public spotlight is more than usually discomfited at home. There's something awfully sad about happiness, isn't there? Garry asks early on of his latest conquest, Daphne (Amy Hall, struggling in a small but crucial role), whom Garry can't wait to rid himself of come morning. Such questions start to haunt an increasingly boisterous landscape, whose doors send people scurrying this way and that, French farce-style, even as we're increasingly aware that the man at the epicentre of this social and sexual maelstrom has something wounding going on behind the eyes. Garry, of course, lives for his own hyper-theatricality: he's the thespian equivalent of the time-honored conundrum about how you separate the dancer from the dance. Jennings' supreme achievement is to suggest that Garry is rarely truer than when at his most rabidly theatrical, his vocal rise and fall of a piece with the shifting affections of an apparent sex god who tells us he could just as easily swear off eroticism altogether: a quiet evening spent at home eating an apple, he informs us, would suit him just as well. (On this front, one feels the implicit anxiety of a homosexual writer forcing himself into a heterosexual mode that he's just as happy to put to one side.)

Davies' production has been much more carefully thought through than either this play's previous West End go-rounds, at least in my experience (Tom Conti comes to mind), or the faintly lunatic Broadway production some years back that starred Frank Langella. There are times when the tweaking calls attention to itself: news, for instance, of the escalating war as heard on the radio serving to reinforce the hermetic world in which Garry exists. (Nor is it easy in 2007 to hear Africa, the place to<


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