Theatre review: Present Laughter, Pitlochry

THE set – by Frances Collier – is spectacular, a symphony of 1930’s art-deco panelling with marquetry decor. And the period setting is clear, not least from the gorgeous, stylish costumes; the scene is the London studio flat of leading actor Garry Essendine, in the summer of 1937.

Present Laughter - Pitlochry Festival Theatre

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For all that, though, there’s a feeling that key decisions have not been made, about this handsome but long and shapeless production of Noel Coward’s famous 1939 comedy. The play is essentially a study of celebrity as it existed in the 1930’s and in this week of all weeks, with its torrent of projection and adulation directed at the new royal baby and its parents, it seems both fascinating and prescient.

Yet John Durnin’s production seems caught between a genuine interest in the light Coward might throw on 21st century extremes of celebrity culture, and a stuffy determination to keep the play trapped in its time. Mark Elstob’s central performance as Essendine is a histrionic tour-de-force; yet the purpose of his extreme self-dramatisation remains unclear. There are two or three performances that simply leap the gap between then and now, including Jill Myers’s superb account of Essendine’s middle-aged secretary, and Joseph Mann, quite weird and disturbing as an adoring male stalker. But both Irene Allen and Martine McMenemy seem uncomfortable with their super-witty roles as intelligent wife and predatory femme-fatale; and that’s because this production focuses too much on style, and not enough on the story of a man who can be himself only with those few who understand that he is an artist first, and a superstar only to those who hardly know him at all.

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