Reviews: Present Laughter & A Chorus of Disapproval, both Pitlochry Festival Theatre













The theme of Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s 2013 summer season is celebrity, and there are few dramatists, if any, who had more experience of the phenomenon in the 1920s and 1930s than Noël Coward. His 1939 play Present Laughter offered audiences a peek into the world of matinee idol Garry Essendine, a pampered poodle of a man whose decadently luxurious lifestyle is matched only by his immense ego and his equally enormous capacity for self-dramatisation.

In 1942, when it was first staged, this five-door farce must have seemed an hilarious distraction from the travails of war. Today, Essendine appears to be almost well-grounded and proletarian compared with the current generation of tantrum-prone, mind-bogglingly rich pop stars, supermodels and top tier footballers.

The play is set in Essendine’s palatial home (splendidly designed in a consciously clashing combination of art deco and garish neo-classicism by Frances Collier) during a 1930s summer. As ever in the acclaimed actor’s life, beautiful, young women have a habit of “losing” their latch keys, and Essendine has a habit of gallantly offering them his spare room.

The ensuing comedy sees the celebrity thespian caught between lovestruck teenager Daphne; his business-minded ex-wife Liz; scheming seductress (and wife of his manager) Joanna; and a very odd, very obsessive wannabe playwright Roland (who has, in Joseph Mann’s spectacularly eccentric performance, more than a touch of the Boris Johnsons about him). It is, in John Durnin’s beautifully paced production, all tremendously good fun.

Mark Elstob is an absolute delight as Essendine (Coward’s quasi-autobiographical send-up of himself). He leads a generally fine cast; although there is no discernible reason why Simon Donaldson has to play the actor’s valet, Fred, as a Cockney stereotype so outrageous that he stands out like Nick Griffin at a bar mitzvah.

Indeed, Donaldson’s at it again in Alan Ayckbourn’s 1984 amateur operatic comedy A Chorus Of Disapproval (which is like a less subtle and less well-structured version of Michael Frayn’s metatheatrical farce Noises Off from 1982). That Donaldson’s character, Pendon Amateur Light Operatic Society member Ian, is an insatiable swinger is clear enough without him swaggering about like a sex-obsessed John Wayne with haemorrhoids.

Not that a more nuanced performance by the PFT newcomer would help matters much. From the very outset Carl Patrick – as the Society’s director, combustible Welshman Dafydd ap Llewellyn – is so highly strung that he has precious little room for manoeuvre when his ill-fated staging of The Beggar’s Opera really begins to hit the buffers. Like Coward, Ayckbourn’s brand of assiduously middlebrow entertainment invites a certain amount of overacting, but Richard Baron’s production has more than its fair share.

However, as the caricatures (from a surly barmaid, to amateur opera newbie, and unlikely sexual athlete, Guy “it’s the quiet ones you have to watch” Jones) abound, Irene Allan bravely squeezes a ton of pathos out of her character, Dafydd’s long-suffering wife Hannah. Designer Frances Collier (again) nails the small town hall and pub, and musical director Jon Beales does a professionally unobtrusive job of building a musical within a pastiche musical.

While I admire Ayckbourn for his support of young playwrights and directors, I have long considered him to be the most overrated of playwrights. This aptly named, decidedly laboured comedy does nothing to alter my opinion.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on July 7, 2013

© Mark Brown


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