Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

"Present Laughter," Noel Coward's "charming" play at the Shaw Festival Theatre

Claire Jullien as Liz Essendine and Steven Sutcliffe as Garry Essendine in Present Laughter. Photo by David Cooper

Present Laughter Oxford defines charm as "fascinating, pleasing, and delightful behavior." One doesn't hear people these days often being accused of excessive charm, certainly not our current leaders, Stephen Harper and Dalton McGuinty, and those in waiting, Thomas Mulcaire and Tim Hudak. In fact, it's hard to believe that formerly some would even attend "charm school" as a vital preparation for social life.

Coward, one of the 20th century's first dazzling celebs, is author and protagonist in Present Laughter. The plot follows a few days in the life of a successful, narcissistic comedy actor, Garry Essendine (Coward), as he prepares to travel on an African tour. Amidst a series of inane events verging on farce, he must deal with women who try to seduce him, soothe both his long-suffering secretary and his estranged wife, cope with a wild young would-be playwright, and overcome his anxiety about middle-age, having recently turned forty.

The play's title derives from a song in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, urging a carpe diem approach to life. The action is confined to a splendidly constructed London residence created by masterful designer William Schmuck (drawing immediate applause as the curtain opens). It revolves around Essendine (Steven Sutcliffe as Coward) previously portrayed on stage by many dashing leading men, all fitted out in classy silk dressing gowns. The list includes Clifton Webb, George C. Scott and Frank Langella, and the role demands a hybrid psychological fusion of slick-footed Fred Astaire with a dash of handsome and sophisticated Cary Grant. That's precisely where this "French farce," directed by David Schurmann falls flat.

Claire Julien   Jonathan Tan   Moya O'Connell

Over the years, Steven Sutcliffe has emerged as a fine actor, but as Essendine, he lacks that easy grace, a debonair nature pivotal for the Steven Sutcliffe role. He adroitly employs narcissistic devices such as methodically checking his hair each time that he passes a mirror, (it gets tedious), and the remaining cast members serve mainly as foils, but Sutcliffe does not breathe easy allure, reaching instead for exasperation (which he does quite well) as women who adore him, throw themselves at his feet, his ante room transformed into a dumping ground for a chain of one-night stands.

The play contains classic Coward wit ("Everybody worships me, it's nauseating.") and the audience loved the comedic turns, perhaps taken back many decades to a kinder, gentler day as Essendine readies for Africa while his elegant London flat is invaded first by Daphne Stillington, a love-struck ingénue (Julia Course), Morris Dixon, an adulterous producer (Gray Powell) and a married seductress (Moya O'Connell), as well as an estranged wife (Claire Jullien) and Roland Maule, a crazed young playwright (Jonathan Tan).

Steven Sutcliffe as Garry Essendine and Mary Haney as Monica Reed in Present Laughter. Photo by David Cooper

Frenetic Ms. Course is terrific as the manic yet plotting Daphne, Powell workman-like yet convincing as friend-adulterer Dixon, O'Connell as sultry and desirous as she was in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Jullien, superbly sophisticated in a "been there, done that" wifely fashion - helpful and experienced, and Tan steals every scene he is in with his deft gymnastics and agile, rapid-talking exuberance, fueled by Sutcliffe's Essendine. Patrick McManus rounds out the cast as the unknowing victim of infidelity, Hugo Luyppiatt.

The first act opens with yet another heartbroken lady left in the ante room, infatuated with Essendine from the night before, and employing the excuse that she forgot her house latch key (a repeated refrain) to explain her presence to staff in the morning such as Essendine's secretary, Monica Reed (Mary Haney) who manages some sharp jibes that provoke great laughter and manservant Fred (James Pendarves) who keeps us fixated on his hat with adroit tricks despite a minor role. As with the others, Essendine can't seem to disperse his evening's entertainment, leading to complications and a final showdown.

Claire Jullien as Liz Essendine and Moya O'Connell as Joanna Lyppiatt in Present Laughter. Photo by David Cooper

His ex, Liz arrives (they didn't bother with a divorce) to instruct Essendine on his philandering ways: "You are no longer a debonair, irresponsible juvenile. You are an eminent man advancing, with every sign of reluctance, into middle age." Ouch! Time to purchase a yellow sports car.

Coward portrays Essendine as the sanest amidst fanatical friends and fans, claiming he's the most sensible about sexual mores because everyone else merely wallows in it and is miserable, but he knows how to take it lightly and have fun. He admits to being an actor both on stage and in life, often utilizing past memorized scripts on various paramours. And as Essendine moves effortlessly from role to role, from caring lover to cross yet warm boss to the prickly husband, he extols delight in playing each to the hilt: "I'm always acting," he says. "Watching myself go by - that's what so horrible." Apparently, the Shaw audience thoroughly enjoyed watching him manage it all with flair, many rising to applaud the entire cast at play's end.

Festival Theatre

Present Laughter plays in the Festival Theatre to October 28; Box Office and Membership - Phone: 905-468-2172 or 1-800-511-7429; fax 905-468-3804; email:

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