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Present Laughter review at Theatre Royal Bath – ‘a love letter to theatre’

Samuel West in Present Laughter at Theatre Royal Bath. Photo: Nobby Clark
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Quite rightly so, it is no longer acceptable or indeed politically correct, to call actors luvvies. An exception might be made, however for Garry Essendine, the debonair matinée idol in Noel Coward’s Present Laughter. On the wrong side of 40, his petulant self-pity is matched only by his roguish self-satisfaction.

Stephen Unwin’s classy revival of Coward`s love letter to the theatre – and to himself – opens the Theatre Royal Bath summer season. Few of Coward`s comedies trip the light fantastic better than this look at a time when celebrity was presented with style and a degree of substance, rather than sledge-hammered home.

Samuel West – whose father Timothy, by coincidence, is currently performing down the road in Bristol Old Vic`s King Lear – is at home with both the sophistication and the wit of the situation, while also finding some of the insecurity and loneliness of fame. Unwin sticks perhaps a little unambitiously to drawing room comedy conventions, especially in the lacklustre first act, with Essendine facing a torrent of interruptions – ranging from a star-struck ingenue (played by Daisy Boulton) to an eccentric young playwright (Patrick Walshe McBride) – as he prepares for a theatrical tour of Africa.

Simon Higlett`s gorgeous set, complete with wrought iron spiral staircase, is a scene-stealer in itself, but the large cast does not always appear to be playing off the same page as West`s thoughtful portrayal. Phyllis Logan lends sardonic authority to Essendine`s besieged secretary Monica, however, while Rebecca Johnson is amiably wry as his wife Liz.

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Verdict
Classy if uneven production of Noel Coward’s love letter to theatre
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