Present Laughter: A Walk Back to a Gentler Time with Noel Coward
At the Wilbraham United Players production of Present Laughter, we took a little Sunday afternoon rabbit hole escape to a more tender, gentile age, when people wore ties and hats, and staying overnight at a bachelor’s house was a scandalous deed.
Present Laughter is a Hilarious Period Romp
It was a gentile age, far more civilized than today, where people were able to express themselves in much more lucid and precise means of speaking. When was the last time you heard the word “poppycock?” The days when Noel Coward wrote “Present Laughter” harkened me back to my youth, thinking about the world my father and his parents inhabited in the ’40s.
The original hit Broadway show opened in 1942, and it originally starred Coward as Garry Essendine, mirroring his own period of realization that he was getting older, at the ripe age of 40.
The lace on the piano, the rotary bakelite telephone, the diamond-shaped wallpaper, and the frilly style of furniture all spoke to the time, that pleasant time when things were…different.
We meet the ensemble, there is Garry Essendine, (David Leslie) the famous actor whose attention everyone wants, but first, there is Daphne Stillington (Carolyn Averill) a star-struck ingenue, who has managed to stay the night in George’s big house and thinks she’s in love with this star of the stage.
Garry’s chain-smoking maid and butler nod knowingly at the women’s jacket and fancy shoes left out in the living room. Daphne has slept in the guest bedroom after losing her latch key. A lot of keys go missing around here, it seems. And every available woman except the maid is in love with dear old Garry. We meet his harried secretary Monica, (Devon Bakum) who tries in vain to keep the crazy visitors away.
The setup is the classic farce, with comings and goings, ringing doorbells and the ringing aforementioned rotary telephone, at this house there is always someone making an entrance. The play is full of naughty infidelities and love interests pointing at Garry despite his determination to get on with his trip to Africa and leave the crazy bunch behind.
The costumes are perfectly period, Garry is delighted with the dressing gown he is presented by Liz, his vaguely estranged yet present wife, as he struts around showing off its fancy embroidered initials, causing her to comment, “try not being so attractive to everyone, Garry!”
Cigarettes dangle from the maid’s lips and Garry also enjoys a Chesterfield, while everyone keeps imbibing in sherry and other drinks from the bar. Suddenly a wild character bursts on stage, it’s playwright Roland Maule, who shakes hands so hard it practically wrenches limbs off unsuspecting guests.
He’s all adither about a play he’s written for the star that he insists will give George’s pajamas-t0-tails-tails-to-pajamas life some actual meaning. Garry wishes he never invited the loud-mouthed Maule into his London studio and tries to get rid of him, unsuccessfully. “Your play is poppycock!” Maule exclaims, ” I can sublimate you!”
Garry has plans, he’s about to set sail to Africa to perform more of his predictable boring theater so hated by Maule. His secretary Monica who tries to keep the visitors at bay and her client’s best interests at heart, can’t join the actor on the big trip. But as the play unfolds, we realize Garry is going to have plenty of familiar company on the long steamship trip to Nairobi.
Many of the scenes are classic overacting but it’s all funny and bright. Garry gets admonished for his “famous finger waving tirades,” by Maule, the only person who sees through Garry’s pompous celebrity. Watching Garry prone on the couch as woman after woman vies for his affection was funny especially as Leslie did such wonderfully exaggerated poses and kept up his perfect London accent throughout the long play.
An ongoing bit where Garry has to adjust his hair in the mirror before each time he is about to open the studio door is just one of many funny mannerisms that pepper the production.
The set was as mentioned, perfectly period, kudos to Deb Trimble and Jim Martin for creating such a realistic London living room. The costume design by Deb Trimble too, deserves mention especially the fancy outfits worn by Joanna and Daphne!
As to be expected with a Noel Coward farce, the details and ups and downs are calamitous and consistently kept the audience laughing. This was a fun and rewarding afternoon escape, and I highly recommend the show, it continues May 26, 27 and 28.
Present Laughter by Noel Coward, at the Wilbraham United Players, Wilbraham United Methodist Church. Directed by Deb Trimble, Joe Lessard Stage Manager. Tickets.
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