Review: Brilliant production of Noel Coward’s serious comedy in Leamington

Nick Le Mesurier reviews Present Laughter at the Loft Theatre, Leamington, directed by Lorna Middleton

People love Garry Essendine (Chris Gilbey-Smith). That’s the trouble. A star of the 1930s London theatre scene, he has far too many followers. Not that he minds.

Women, and possibly a few men, would do anything to get into his bed, and quite a few succeed. Among them are Daphne Stillington (Leonie Slater), oh-so-posh debutante who simply adores him. Then there’s Joanna Lyppiatt (Leonie Frazier), a far more dangerous liaison, who is married to his old friend and producer Henry (Jeremy Heynes) and who has been having an affair with another old friend, Morris Dixon (Edward Griffiths). Henry, Morris, his ex-wife Liz (Jessica Newborough) and Garry form a sort of family, who somehow keep him afloat. Joanna’s determined encroachments threaten that carefully managed act.

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Present Laughter, by Noel Coward, is a farce, but with an edge. Garry is a monster of egotism, but he is not a fool, and he has a sharp wit and a tongue to match. Nobody’s flaws get past him, yet, and this is both the mystery and the mastery of the play, his own remain curiously opaque to him. The question that rumbles underneath the story is who, or what, is Garry Essendine?

It was written in 1939 and is set roughly in that time, but there is no mention of the war. Real life does not intrude on these rich socialites. Yet, in a sense it does, because they are all in pursuit of what we now call ‘authenticity’. This makes the play entirely modern.

Core to Garry’s survival are the people who support him. His long-suffering, seen-it-all secretary, is Monica Reed (Sue Moore). Then there’s his weird spiritualist cleaner Miss Erikson (Linda McElwee). They are all a little odd. None more so than Roland Maule (Richard Baldwin), aspiring playwright and desperate hanger-on, who thrusts himself into Garry’s life like a virus.

Present Laughter is, like many of Coward’s plays, a serious comedy. The veneer of ‘civilised’ life is both polished and exposed by this brilliant production, which marks another triumph in The Loft’s long and illustrious career.

Present Laughter runs until June 18. Call 01926 830680 to book.