Noel Coward

Present Laughter: NT Live

26/01/20

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s hard to believe that National Theatre Live is already celebrating its 10th anniversary. This brilliant initiative, which makes the very best theatrical productions accessible to a much wider audience than they could ever reach on the stage, has been a resounding success. Like many people, we usually view them at the cinema – but there’s something very fitting about seeing this West End winner on the big screen at the Festival Theatre.

The play invites us to witness a few turbulent days in the life of highly successful actor, Garry Essendine (Andrew Scott). Recently turned forty and about to embark on a prestigious tour of Africa, Gary is suffering something of a mid-life crisis and, at the play’s opening, wakes up after a night of drunken debauchery to discover that he has slept with ingenue Daphne Stillington (Kitty Archer). Unfortunately, she is still hanging around his swish apartment, hoping for breakfast and that meaningful relationship he promised her last night.

Her presence is tolerated with little more than a raised eyebrow by Garry’s long-suffering assistant, Monica (Sophie Thompson), and by his ex wife, Liz (Indira Varma), who has long ago abandoned her personal feelings in favour of managing and protecting the Garry Essendine ‘brand.’ Both women know that such indiscretions are parr for the course.

But further complications rear their heads when Garry’s married business associate, Morris (Abdul Salis) confesses to having an affair with Joe (Enzo Cilenti), and it isn’t long before the self-same Joe has arrived at the apartment and is making flirtatious advances to Garry.

Coward fans will know that in the original play, Joe was Joanna, but this gender-swap is an astute move on the part of director, Matthew Warchus, reminding us that Coward was a closeted gay man at a time when such inclinations could never be expressed onstage. As the tempo steadily rises, and the play careers like an out-of-control vehicle from one frenetic scene to the next, it’s no surprise to hear the complaint, ‘I feel like a character in a French farce.’

The actors are all pretty much note-perfect: Luke Thallon is particularly assured as a sycophantic fan prepared to move heaven and earth to be near his idol, while Sophie Thompson is an absolute delight as Monica, enmeshed in a love-hate relationship with her employer and sometimes in danger of veering towards the former. But make no mistake, this show belongs to Scott and his undeniable talent. His embodiment of the vain, childish and self-obsessed Garry Essendine is an absolute comic tour de force. I’ve seen plenty of Noel Coward plays over the years but I’ve never laughed as uproariously as I do at this one.

I think he’d be thoroughly delighted by this version, though, which is fresh and vivacious enough to make me think that I’d like to see more of The Master’s plays reimagined for our times.

There are more top flight theatrical productions scheduled to view at the Festival Theatre. Why not treat yourself?

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Hay Fever

HayFever

14/03/17

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

The world of Noel Coward is arguably an overly familiar one – a world of tennis whites and champagne cocktails, of country houses and French windows. Perhaps the word most associated with his work is ‘arch.’ If you’re going to have a crack at the plays of ‘The Master’, you’d better be sure that quality is there in abundance.

Luckily, this co-production from The Lyceum Theatre and Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre, under the astute direction of Dominic Hill, gets it just right. Hay Fever is the story of the Bliss family, four eccentric bohemians co-existing in their country retreat and planning a bit of a bash at the weekend. The father of the house, David (Benny Baxter-Young), is a successful novelist, currently hard at work on his latest opus, The Sinful Woman. His wife, Judith (Susan Woolridge), is a former grande dame who has never quite lost her flair for the theatrical and is happy to utilise it whatever she’s doing (even she’s simply rearranging flowers). And then there are the kids, Sorel (Rosemary Boyle) and Simon (Charlie Archer), both bored to distraction, endlessly bickering and always ready to make a little mischief. When it transpires that each member of the Bliss family has invited a different house guest down for the weekend, it’s clear that the stage is set for some farcical encounters… but who, you might ask, will get to sleep in the Japanese room? And why does it seem to matter so much?

I’ve rarely seen Coward done better than this. The social awkwardness of the various visitors is played for maximum effect. The scene where hopelessly-out-of–her-depth Jackie Coryton (Katie Barnett) is obliged to interact with pompous Richard Greatham (Hywel Simons) is almost painfully funny. On the night we attend, an onstage accident, which results in a hostess trolley tipping over complete with everyone’s breakfast, is skilfully incorporated into the proceedings and gets some of the biggest laughs of the evening. I also enjoy the brief interval where housekeeper Clara (Myra McFadyen) treats us to a brief selection of Coward’s greatest hits.

This is a delightfully frothy confection and, even though it’s set in the 1920s, the awkward toe-curling moments it offers for our entertainment are still just as relevant today. Go along and treat yourself. These days laughter like this is in perilously short supply.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney