REVIEW: Noel Coward’s Present Laughter at Chichester Festival Theatre

Present Laughter at Chichester Festival Theatre
Present Laughter at Chichester Festival Theatre

The programme cover is adorned with a photo of Noel Coward at his most flamboyantly elegant, draped in silk dressing gown, reclining with phone in hand and sweeping staircase behind.

Present Laughter was, after all, a largely autobiographical vehicle designed to reaffirm the public’s perceptions of the maestro while ensuring their sympathies never abandoned him.

This latest revival pays mere lip service to its sophisticated heritage.

Rufus Hound’s interpretation of Garry Essendine - the lead role meticulously crafted for Coward by Coward - does not attempt to give a straight reprise. On the contrary this is more Tony Hancock thrashing across the stage in a Half Hour special.

Which isn’t to condemn it - entirely. Hound’s word-perfect express-speed delivery and his larger than life portrayal of a middle-aged matinee idol who can never quite decide when he is on the stage or off has its own engaging charm.

The set itself, the costumes, and the elegance of the female role are forensic in recreating the sweep of the original 1942 production.

There are laughs aplenty too from the moment Daphne Stillington (Lizzy Connolly) emerges from the ‘spaaare rhume’ one morning in Essendine’s flat where she encounters three members of Garry’s household staff none of whom is remotely surprised that another in a long succession of sleepovers by various young women has occurred.

Tamzin Griffin’s portrayal of housekeeper Miss Erikson is a masterclass in how to turn the slightest cameo role into a mini comic masterpiece; while the redoubtable Tracy-Ann Oberman - always faultless - brings a reassuring certainty to the position of secretary Monica Reed.

The plot itself is souffle light - full of sugar and bitter-sweet lines. After a brisk start, the first half loses momentum before returning with a flourish in the second to breeze through in farce-like fashion.

Katherine Kingsley shimmers as Garry’s long-suffering but assured wife.

Director Sean Foley has shown courage. To merely imitate the original would have achieved little. To allow Hound to inject his own comic dynamism makes it much better suited to a 21st audience - even though aficionado’s may fear the original subtlety of language has been supplanted by something far less delicate.