Present Laughter at the Shaw Festival

Steven Sutcliffe and Claire Jullien as Garry and Liz Essendine

The Shaw Festival does Noël Coward practically as well as it does Shaw, and this year’s Present Laughter, a 1939 comedy, is a good example. In fact, a repertory company like the Shaw’s, whose players have a lot of experience with one another, is especially suited to perform Present Laughter, which is a play about the intimacy and cohesion of a small group of friends.  These actors have collectively played a lot of Coward; the show’s star, Steven Sutcliffe, was in the cast 20 years ago when the Shaw Festival last did Present Laughter. It’s a briskly-paced, well-acted show.

This play gives us a few chaotic days in the life of British actor Garry Essendine (Sutcliffe), a character who closely resembles Coward himself, especially the way Mr. Sutcliffe plays him – charismatic, vain, flamboyant, supremely self-confident.  I liked Noël Coward all the more after seeing this play again; there’s a lot to be said for someone who is sufficiently self-aware to poke fun at his own foibles.

Steven Sutcliffe and Mary Haney as Garry Essendine and his secretary, Monica Reed

I’d be glad to trade my chaos for Garry Essendine’s.  What play to pick for my next star turn?  What theater to put it in?  What actress to pick to replace the one who just broke her leg?  How to get rid of a star-struck airhead who’s still there in the morning?

Fortunately for Garry, he has plenty of support.  Besides the valet and the Swedish cook who keep his apartment/studio functioning (my wife and I loved William Schmuck’s loft-style set and the extravagant dressing gowns for Garry), Garry has a long-time personal assistant (the wonderful Mary Haney, whose deadpan one-liners cracked me up) and a tight inner circle of associates that includes his still affectionate ex-wife, Liz (Claire Jullien, in a complex role that she makes look easy).

Steven Sutcliffe as Garry Essendine and Moya O’Connell as Joanna Lyppiatt

The fly in the ointment is the sexually voracious Joanna (Moya O’Connell, and very convincing in the role), who has been married to Hugo (Patrick McManus) for five years but is still viewed as an interloper by the rest of the circle.  Garry is alarmed to learn that Joanna has been having an affair with Morris (Gray Powell), which threatens to break up the “family.”  Garry is even more discomfited when, late one evening, Joanna tries to seduce Garry himself.

In the midst of all these crises, Garry finds his apartment infested with Roland Maule, an aspiring young playwright who is obsessed with Garry.  Jonathan Tan’s high-speed portrayal of Roland was a great crowd-pleaser the night we saw this show, though it seemed to me a bit of a diversion that interrupted the feel of the play.  Far more perfectly in the spirit was the iridescent Jennifer Phipps, who plays an elderly society lady who has persuaded Garry to give her niece an audition.

Present Laughter is a brilliantly constructed comic masterpiece.  People insinuate themselves into Garry’s apartment under false pretenses, a la Wodehouse and Wilde; inconvenient people are hustled into side rooms to avoid awkward encounters.  The repartee dazzles.

But if I can’t list Present Laughter as one of my favorite Coward plays, it’s because the world of Garry Essendine is simply too far removed from mine.  Garry and his pals aren’t just in show business, they’re at the top of the pile.  How much different are the lives of these stars from the lives of George and Lily Pepper, the fading vaudeville performers in Coward’s Red Peppers (see this post)!  Garry Essendine, poor fellow, has to deal with impudent servants, with wannabe playwrights, and with women who throw themselves at him.  The Peppers, on the other hand, have to cope with drunken musicians who play their songs too fast; they have to worry about where they might get their next engagement.  We can identify with George and Lily, never with Garry.  And what a contrast between the characters in Present Laughter and the work-a-day families in Coward’s Fumed Oak (see, again, this post) and This Happy Breed, which is perhaps the quintessential portrayal of the English middle class.

Coward is almost the only politically conservative playwright whose works are presented at the Shaw Festival, and Present Laughter is, without making a big deal about it, a capitalist-friendly play.  Like other business people, Garry and his associates are concerned with maintaining their brand, new product development, business finance, personnel issues, and so on.  (Hugo, who produces Garry’s plays, is one of the few capitalists who is favorably portrayed in any notable twentieth-century play.) And in its way Present Laughter is a “family values” play — the plot is primarily about how Garry, Monica, and Liz fend off threats to their clan.

And yet we couldn’t help seeing Present Laughter as an expression of Coward’s views on freedom in sexual behavior and as an “apology” for his own lifestyle.  The moral of the play, if it could be said to have one, is that what a fellow does in bed with someone shouldn’t matter to anyone else (a proposition expressly defended not only by Garry but also by his valet, Fred).  And so, in the final scene, Liz comes back to Garry knowing full well that in their future life together he will surely not be faithful to her.  Indeed, the climactic joke in Present Laughter, which comes in the play’s last minute, is that Garry, Hugo, and Morris forget their jealous quarrel over Joanna the second she leaves the flat and turn instead to what really matters – what really binds their “family” together – which is the joy of hammering out the details of their next production.

This is fantasy, of course – fantasy to suppose that any husband, wife, or lover, whether in heterosexual or homosexual relationships, can realistically be expected not to be jealous when a partner has a little casual fun on the side.  Sexual possessiveness is not a conditioned social reflex; we’re hard-wired to feel it. No doubt Coward felt that more people should have “open” relationships like that of his friend Cole Porter and his wife Linda Lee Thomas.  Unfortunately, human nature is not so flexible.

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Play, Orchestra, Play at the Shaw Festival (a review)

Jamieson and Turvey2

The Peppers are a bit old in the tooth to pass for a pair of young sailors

After seeing three of them, we can say with assurance that it was an excellent idea for the Shaw Festival to give four of its season’s shows over to Noël Coward’s Tonight at 8:30. The show at the Royal George Theater, Play, Orchestra, Play is every bit as entertaining as the others. 

The three one-act plays that make up Play, Orchestra, Play are quite different from each other: one is comic, one is brutally serious, and one is essentially a romantic fantasy. This is pretty much the same mix as in Brief Encounters, which we loved (see this post), but there is a good deal more music in Play, Orchestra, Play than in Brief Encounters — five songs in all, plus musical interludes between the plays.

First in order is Red Peppers, a slice from an evening in the life of George and Lily Pepper, a vaudeville pair who are are hanging on by their fingernails as the end of that era nears. The Peppers are still working, in cheap regional music halls, but their cross-talk is stale and their act’s not very good.

Jamieson and Turvey3

The Peppers squabble in their dressing room

We meet them on stage, dressed as a pair of sailors singing “Has Anyone Seen Our Ship”; the end of the number is spoiled when Lily (Patty Jamieson) drops her prop as they dance off the stage. As they change in their dressing room (the period costumes include vintage British underwear!), George (Jay Turvey) blames Lily for flubbing her exit, and they start rehashing old grievances.

But they stop bickering, close ranks, and redirect their fire toward the common enemy: the conductor of the house orchestra, the house manager, and another performer, all of whom drop by during the interlude before they go on again. (At some point in his career, Coward himself must have had to rely on unreliable house musicians for tempos; in Red Peppers he settles a score or two. In this production, unfortunately, the orchestra’s just a little too loud, so that we couldn’t catch all the lyrics to “Has Anyone Seen Our Ship” and “Men About Town.” No doubt the Peppers were familiar with that problem, too.) The insults fly around the dressing room; the pugnacious Peppers are shockingly willing to alienate the very people on whom they depend for professional survival. It’s all very funny, and very real.

Noel Coward

Coward

Coward was at the top of the entertainment world when he wrote this play in 1935. But he clearly loved people like the Peppers, who were at the bottom of the profession, for their fierce independence and their commitment to their craft. We met people a lot like the Peppers last winter when we read J. B. Priestley’s 1929 novel The Good Companions, which tells the story of a traveling troupe of perfomers who play small music halls throughout England.

The middle play, Fumed Oak, features the equally vulgar and far less lovable wife, daughter, and mother-in-law of Henry Gow. Fumed Oak is straight drama and has no musical numbers, but this was the play in Play, Orchestra, Play that we liked best.

Henry Gow & wife & child

Henry Gow (Stephen Sutcliffe) does his best to ignore his whining daughter and bitchy wife

The unfortunate Henry Gow (Stephen Sutcliffe) has been stuck for years in a job as a retail clerk; worse, he’s married to Doris Gow (Patty Jamieson again), who long ago tricked him into marriage with the old pregnancy ploy, thereby frustrating his dream of going to sea and seeing the world. “You’re a bad lot, Dorrie,” Henry tells his wife. “Mean and cold and respectable.” It took three years after their “little rough and tumble” for a baby to be born; their daughter Elsie (Robin Evan Willis), now a teenager, is a “horrid little kid,” as Henry says. His mother-in-law (Wendy Thatcher) lives with them in their tiny, noisy apartment and whines and bitches at everyone.

Henry Gow loses it

Henry Gow (Stephen Sutcliffe) declares himself free

During the first part of Fumed Oak, Henry sits silently at his breakfast listening to the females snipe at one another. (Unlike the bickering in Red Peppers, there’s nothing funny about it.) During the second part, Henry carries off an enormously satisfying coup, gives the women what for, and escapes his hellish home. Is this play misognynist? We thought about it and decided it wasn’t.

We wondered what the title of this play meant. Henry Gow says that when Conrad and Kipling wrote about the sea, they “knew there was a bit more to it than refinement and fumed oak and lace curtains and getting old and miserable with nothing to show for it.” When we got home, we looked it up and found that “fumed oak” is oak that has been darkened by exposure to ammonia — not a bad metaphor for Coward’s character.

The show concludes with Shadow Play. Unlike the first two plays, which deal with working class folk, Shadow Play delves into the lives of the rich and fashionable. (Coward was remarkably familiar with people of all stations in life.)

Julie Martell and Stephen Sutcliffe2

Julie Martell and Stephen Sutcliffe as Vicki and Simon in Shadow Play

In Red Peppers, vaudeville partners George and Lily Pepper had only each other to lean on. In Shadow Play, Vicky Gayforth (the exceptionally fetching Julie Martell) and her husband Simon (Stephen Sutcliffe again) are socialites who have forgotten why they needed each other in the first place. Simon is carrying on a notorious affair with Sibyl Heston (Robin Evan Willis again); Vicky is letting an infatuated young man pursue her, but hasn’t yet decided how far to let him go.

After Vicky and Simon have come back from a romantic play, Simon proposes that they divorce. But the desperately miserable Vicky has already taken extra sleeping pills, and the rest of the play is a drug-induced dream sequence, much of it in song, as Vicky relives their early romance. Julie Martell and Stephen Sutcliffe are fine duet partners (as they are in the Shaw Festival’s Sunday in the Park with George this summer, as well). The songs in Shadow Play are “Play, Orchestra, Play,” “Then,” and the melodic and memorable “You Were There.”

The backdrops for each of these one-act plays consist of scenes projected onto a screen (see the picture at the top of this post). These work very well and are especially effective during the fantasy sequences in Shadow Play.

Director Christopher Newton programmed a good many of Noël Coward’s full-length plays while he was the Shaw Festival’s Artistic Director. We hope the Shaw doesn’t take too long a break from Coward after this year. Surely, in a couple of years, it will be time for the Shaw to put on Cavalcade again — what an unforgettable show that was! And we’d really love to see The Vortex.

Emsworth reviews of other Shaw Festival productions in 2009:

John Osborne’s The Entertainer (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Ways of the Heart (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Star Chamber (see this post)
Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Brief Encounters (see this post)
Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten (see this post)