REVIEW: Present Laughter

  • Presented by Triumph Theatre Productions – British Tour
  • September 1974

Character: Garry Essendine

 GARY

 PETER as Garry Essendine.

 The action takes place in Garry Essendine’s London studio in the early 1930’s.

Act I

Scene One: Morning

Act II

Scene One: Evening. Three days later.

Scene Two: The next evening.

Act III

Scene One: A week later.

Garry Essendine is the quintessential star; flamboyantly dressed and devastatingly handsome. He revels in female adulation and casual love-affairs.

PETER conveyed all that and more as Garry in Noel Coward’s play, which toured throughout the UK during the Winter of 1974.

The play was 1940’s Coward at its best, but had been skilfully updated. Although some Coward purists may have resented Peter’s reworking of this production, to many critics minds he had done an excellent job streamlining the work. Although some of the updates failed marginally, the play, which was written nearly 15 years after Coward penned some of his more famous scripts, took well to the modern treatment.

PETER, who directed as well as starred, added to his reputation for professionalism with his deft handling of the play. He proved in this particular work to be the complete actor, using it as a vehicle to manoeuvre with dazzling variations of pace. His own playing of the flamboyant lead was a first-class modernization of itself. Not only had he adapted it to the style of Jason King, who had of course given him the kind of following such as Garry Essendine would lividly envy, but enough individuality and magnetism of his own not to need to dress up in the Noel Coward mantle and turn to the latter’s affectionate self-mockery of his own public image.

Originally, Coward had surrounded himself with décor befitting a star of those times, including a trendy wardrobe that, although elegant, amusingly over emphasized what was expected of him. His Essendine studio was eye-catching Japonaise, and his own outfits successfully competed with it for dazzle, with silk Oriental gowns, sharp fashion suits and so on, all worn with casual panache (of course!).

The play had been astutely, but sensitively, edited so that only those who were very familiar with it would be aware of the extensions. And in dispensing with Fred the Valet and retaining only the dourly contented spiritualist housekeeper, further successful paring-down was achieved.

Some may have wagged a finger at Daphne Stillington – the twee debutante of the original – with a screaming groupie accent, and her aunt, Lady Saltburn with a Brummie one. But in the days of proletarian titles, the substitution was quite an apt one. However, in one moment the modernization slipped: Monica Reed talks of “a wholesome fear of the gallows”: in 1974, it should have read “life-imprisonment-but-let-out-after-five-years-for-good-behaviours”, surely!

By nature, this is the star’s show, but in his role of both actor and director, PETER manipulated neatly so that all the other characters got their share of the action, and that each role was worth playing. Former pop star, Mark Wynter, for instance, was given a free rein in his cameo as the eccentric avant garde playwright, Ronald Maule. The woman who perused and complicated the life of the desirable Garry, where on the whole, slightly disappointing, although Jan Holden who took over the role of his elegant but long-suffering wife from Hildergarde Neil, was delightful to watch, whilst Joyce Grant as Monica was a little more cozier than the acid-tongued secretary usually seen.

The woman who did get most of the audience’s laughter and sympathy was Eileen Bell as the elderly Swedish maid, Miss Erikson, and her clothes were cleverly contrast to the more glamorous ladies.

One of the highlights of the play were the comical but cleverly presented duel between Garry and his manager’s wife – the affected man-eater, Joanna Lyppiatt, with whom he was having a torrid affair. The famous confrontation lit up the stage as the two knowing sexual sophisticates verbally skirmish before gliding into bed.

The action of the play takes place over the course of week at Garry’s studio apartment in London, where the star revels in being as temperamental as a prima donna: “Everyone worships me,” he says in the first act. “It’s nauseating!”

Pestered by various friends and adoring females, Garry pretends he is harassed to the point of a nervous breakdown, but secretly relishes the adulation.

He becomes more involved with Joanna, however, and an adoring young girl called Daphne – not to mention the hopeful young playwright, Ronald Maule, who is desperate to have Garry endorse his work. It is left to Liz to extract him from the inevitable trouble when, on the eve of his departure for a South African tour, they all announce they are going to accompany him.

The Hellfire Club: The OFFICIAL PETER WYNGARDE Appreciation Society: https://www.facebook.com/groups/813997125389790/

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