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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Present Laughter
Lyttelton Theatre       2007-2008

This is one of several comedies Noel Coward wrote for himself to star in, so I needn't point out that it is built on a seeming inexhaustible string of witty one-liners and oodles of charm and sophistication.

In this case there's the added pleasure of French-style farce, with several very funny sequences built on the hero's frantic attempts to keep characters who must not meet from meeting.

Said hero is Garry Essendine, irresistibly handsome and charismatic star of light comedies - that is to say, half self-parody and half self-celebration on Coward's part.

Fans male and female besiege his home; his ex-wife still loves him; his secretary, valet and housekeeper would die for him; and even the fact that he sleeps with his agent's wife in the course of the play doesn't shake the guy's loyalty.

That wife, who's actually a predator plowing her way up the social ladder, and a couple of inescapable fans generate what there is of the plot, which consists mainly of Garry trying to carry on his easy, feckless life in the face of constant minor interruptions.

You don't do this play unless you've got a star who can play both high comedy and low farce, and who is as magnetic and charismatic onstage as his character is meant to be. And certainly Alex Jennings was born for roles like this.

Jennings can milk a gag or double take for all it's worth without ever going too far, and he knows when to snap out a one-liner and when to let it just float out there for us to catch up with.

Always at his best in slightly-larger-than-life roles, Jennings carries the evening with seemingly effortless expertise.

In short, Present Laughter is a delight. It serves no redeeming social purpose except to make you happy while you're watching it and for a few hours afterwards. And that ain't half bad.

Sara Stewart as the ex who runs Garry's life without his realising it, Sarah Woodward as the obligatory wisecracking and boss-loving secretary and Pip Carter as a mad young fan lead a solid cast whose only weak link is Lisa Dillon as the predator, never quite catching the level of Cowardian smoothness that the others have mastered.

Director Howard Davies is as adept with the verbal scenes as the farcical ones, though his pacing sometimes flags - at almost three hours, the play occasionally risks dropping the fragile balloon it's been keeping in the air, and some speeding up, particularly in the second half, would not be amiss.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Present Laughter - National Theatre 2007
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