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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

Present Laughter (1981)
BBC and YouTube     2020

A 1981 West End production of Noel Coward's comedy was recorded by the BBC and now lies waiting to be rediscovered in the depths of YouTube.

It is an exuberant, highly stylised staging of an exuberant, highly stylised script, and while some of its enthusiasm might be a bit much for modern tastes, it offers much to delight.

Like most of Coward's comedies, it was written as a vehicle for the author as actor, in what could be taken as a thinly disguised self-portrait.

The central character is an egotistical, constantly 'on' stage star surrounded by a loving entourage (ex-wife, secretary, producer, agent, servants) whose only delight and function in life is to massage his ego and protect him from any encounter with reality.

We also get to see some of what they work so hard to protect him from, in the form of a predatory seductress, a star-struck would-be actress and a mad wannabe playwright.

As you have every right to expect from Coward, every line is a perfect gem, either a self-contained witticism or a biting zinger of a put-down. As you might not expect, there is also a lot of physical humour, much of it generated by the star of this version, Donald Sinden, here at the absolute peak of his comic powers.

Possessed of a grand style and a rich and plummy voice, both completely appropriate to the character, Sinden had by this time mastered a way of shamelessly milking three laughs out of every gag.

Typically he speaks a comic line and gets a laugh. Then, startled to discover there is an audience out there, he does an elaborate double-take and gets a second laugh. And then, with schoolmasterly fury he stares the audience down as if to say 'We'll have no more of that,' and gets a third laugh. And then on to the next line.

It is a performance style that is obviously totally artificial, and I can see how some might find it too much. But if you go along with it you not only enjoy its effect immensely but admire the skill with which it is employed.

(Recently on one of TV's old-movie channels I saw a couple of 1950s films in which a young Donald Sinden was the romantic lead. He was totally bland and unimpressive, without even the plummy voice, and we must be thankful he eventually found his true style.)

So Sinden might not be to your taste, though that would be a shame. The real problem with this Present Laughter is that director Alan Strachan pushed everyone else to try to match Sinden's over-the-top-ness, creating a level of artificiality and intensity that sometimes approaches mass hysteria.

Particularly done an injustice by being made to overact are Elizabeth Counsell's seductress and Belinda Lang's stage-struck ingénue, though the big seduction scene between Sinden and Counsell is a total delight, keeping us and the characters unsure through most of its length just who is seducing who.

Even the more controlled performances by Dinah Sheridan as the unflappable wife and Gwen Watford as the acerbic secretary occasionally slip into pure stylisation.

So I could understand if you gave up on this Present Laughter partway through. But I think you would regret it. It's a funny play with a lot of funny stuff in it (I haven't even got to the very young Julian Fellowes as the madman), and a record of one of the last century's greatest comic actors.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Present Laughter BBC 1981