Like many of his contemporaries, Noël Coward found the 1950’s to be a critically lean period. He may have created a string of hit plays during the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s, but in the brave new world of the angry young men his style seemed to be hopelessly dated.
But everything comes round again eventually and by the mid sixties the Coward revival was in full swing. His new plays continued to attract only polite interest, but revivals of his classics tended to garner both popular and critical acclaim.
Therefore 1964 was the ideal time for Granada to turn their Play of the Week strand over to Coward for four weeks. Featuring introductions from the Master himself before each of the four plays, A Choice of Coward kicked off with Present Laughter.
Written in 1939 and first staged in 1942, Coward’s introduction makes it clear that the play was written with a single thought in mind – to provide him with a star vehicle. The character originally played by Coward – Garry Essendine – is the centre of the play and the recipient of most of the best lines. There’s obviously a strong sense of autobiography at play (which wouldn’t have been lost on the audience at the time) as Garry is a fortyish, elegant, dressing-gown clad figure, who continues to deliver bon mots with practised ease even as his world descends into chaos.
Garry isn’t the only character to have a clear real-life counterpart. Garry’s loyal and long-suffering secretary Monica is a straightforward analogue of Coward’s equally devoted secretary, Lorne Lorraine, whilst Garry’s almost ex-wife, Liz, is said to be partly modelled on Joyce Carey, who played Liz in the original production.
Garry Essendine (Peter Wyngarde) is the bright star around which his devoted satellites – Liz (Ursula Howells), Monica (Joan Benham), manager Morris (Danvers Walker) and producer Henry (Edwin Apps) orbit. But it would be wrong to call Garry a despot, he appears to be much more affable than that. Although as he’s an actor it’s difficult to know whether any of the emotions he exhibits are genuine. This might have been a fruitful area for the play to examine, but as this is a lightweight confection (albeit with the odd barb) it tends to steer clear of psychological analysis.
The play opens with Daphne Stillington (Jennie Linden) exploring Garry’s flat. A would-be actress and a devoted admirer of Garry, she has stayed the night (albeit in the spare room). When Garry eventually rises, he firmly, but charmingly dispatches her (an early sign of how he tends, almost absent-mindedly, to pick up and then discard people at will). Linden is very appealing as the naïve and fresh-faced young woman besotted with the stylish Garry. Daphne exits but returns later, when she helps to raise the comic tempo.
Daphne’s presence doesn’t faze Monica, no doubt it’s something of a regular occurrence. Coward may have given Garry most of the best lines, but he didn’t forget his co-stars completely and Monica is the recipient of some good lines, as is Liz. Liz and Garry may be separated but she’s still part of his inner circle and very much involved in every part of his life. That she too regards Daphne will cool disinterest speaks volumes about her husband and their strange relationship.
James Bolam is great fun as Roland Maule. Maule is an earnest young playwright, entranced and repulsed by Garry’s star quality in equal measure. Maule is flattered to be in Garry’s presence but is forthright in explaining how Garry’s work in the commercial theatre is totally without artistic merit. Coward, who always valued popular success over critical acclaim, plainly uses Maule to take a not-terribly subtle dig at his detractors.
By the time Barbara Murray appeared here as Joanna (Henry’s wife) she was a familiar television face thanks to her role in The Plane Makers as Pamela Wilder. Joanna wouldn’t really have been too much of a stretch for her, since both characters share similar traits – not least a desire for male conquests. Joanna is already conducing an affair with Morris and now she sets her sights on Garry. Wyngarde and Murray both cross verbal swords in a very appealing manner with Garry eventually forced to succumb to the inevitable ….
By now the plot is simmering away nicely and this leads into the frantic conclusion which sees Garry – about to set off for a theatrical tour of Africa – learn to his horror that Daphne, Morris and Joanna have independently bought tickets for Africa as well and are all dead-set on accompanying him.
Eventually matters are resolved, although those expecting the characters – especially Garry – to have learnt anything will be disappointed. As touched upon earlier, this an exercise in farce, not realism.
Adapted by Peter Wildeblood, it runs to just over seventy minutes, so a certain amount of filleting had to be done in order to bring it down to the required length. This means dropping some characters, such as Garry’s valet Fred, and cutting some decent lines, but on the plus side this editing means that it zips along at a fine pace.
Peter Wyngarde dominates of course. He would later become well-known for playing a similar womanizing character, Jason King, so Garry Essendine could almost be said to be a dry run. Clearly relishing Coward’s dialogue, Wyngarde’s a treat from beginning to end.
One of Coward’s evergreen classics (over the years it’s been revived numerous times, with Donald Sinden, Simon Callow, Peter O’Toole, Tom Conti, Peter Bowles, Rik Mayall and Albert Finney amongst those taking on the role of Garry) this cut-down version of Present Laughter is an impressive production.