High comedy brought low by funny business

THEATRE

THERE WAS was a time - round about the date, in fact, that Noel Coward went to a Beatles concert and couldn't understand why people were screaming during the songs - when people wondered whether Coward was really going to survive as a dramatist. Wasn't his work getting just a teensy bit out of date?

Today what is most likely to damage his posthumous career is overexposure. All you need to get Coward back in the West End are a couple of TV faces with brackets after their names telling you which TV show they appear in, and an available venue - such as the Aldwych, recently vacated by The Fields of Ambrosia.

The latest blow to Coward's appeal is Richard Olivier's feeble production of Present Laughter. The laboured jokes warn of what's in store: the "funny" way the maid (Josie Kidd) flicks her dustcloth at the furniture; the "funny" squeakiness with which the debutante Daphne (Fleur Bennett) speaks. The aspiring young playwright Roland (David Arneil) enters in duffle-coat and goatee beard, greeting everyone he meets with a "funny" handshake. This involves moving the other person's hand up to eye level then whipping it down to waist level. The first time he does this it isn't amusing. Sure enough, it's a running gag. Stop it now, I wanted to say. Coward's comedy isn't broad, it's high. When Peter Bowles, who plays the vain, womanising playwright Garry Essendine - the Noel Coward role - rips into Roland, telling him his play is a "meaningless jumble of adolescent pseudo-intellectual poppycock", he is wasting his breath. No one takes the twerp seriously anyway.

Peter Bowles is not unsuited to play Garry, as Sir Richard Scott might say. He nonchalantly scratches his forehead, inspects his gleaming shoes and suavely crosses his legs on the sofa. He also swivels out to the audience to do a "corblimey!" face. He may have picked up this last piece of business from Michael Barrymore. Bowles plays Gary Essendine and Peter Bowles (which is only fair; Coward was playing himself too). He's quick and appealing, but adrift in a company that plays Present Laughter as if it was See How They Run. A sure sign something is wrong is the way that the end of each act leaves us feeling deflated. The way it is acted and the way it is written rarely meet, let alone shake hands.

The late John Dexter agreed to do The Royal Hunt of the Sun when he saw the stage direction: "The men climb the Andes." The Romanian director Andrei Serban must have felt a similar challenge when he read David Lan's strange and elusive new play, The Ends of the Earth. Scene one takes place in a village square, scene two in a hotel bedroom and scene three "high in the mountains".

In Serban's highly atmospheric production, the designer Richard Hudson divides up the Cottesloe into rocky boulders, cafe and bedroom, and the action moves easily between the village and the mountains, the Balkans and London. Lan has been working on this play for 10 years, so it isn't a topical response to recent events. It centres instead on the mental breakdown of a young geologist, Daniel, played with nervy sincerity by Michael Sheen. His five-month-old daughter is seriously ill. Meanwhile he's building a dam for people who don't want it. When the wise local, Yosip (an impressive Karl Johnson), says he smokes too much, Danny quits.

Leave aside, for a moment, the fact that in the Balkans you'd need to have several fags in your mouth at the same time before anyone noticed you were smoking. For Danny, giving up is a gesture, a leap of faith, a step towards regaining control over his life, his way of saving his daughter's life. Yes, that's a lot to pin on one fag, but Lan sustains the metaphor well. Danny confronts his worries, sometimes in the starkest terms: "Life. What is it?" he asks his wife, Cathy (Samantha Bond), and then answers, "Life. Life is ... It's things happening to us, isn't it." The anguish is genuine, but as he struggles to articulate his point of view, we struggle in his wake. Cathy tells Danny that she loathes him and wants him to leave her. Then she says she doesn't believe what she just said. I kept admiring the breadth and intensity of Lan's themes - other playwrights could shape half a dozen plays out of this material - while never understanding how these themes were meant to connect.

Way way back many centuries ago ... Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote a musical piece for a concert at Colet Court School. It was 1968, the piece was Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and it lasted 15 minutes. Four years later, when it was performed at the Roundhouse, Joseph had grown to a full 40 minutes.

The Joseph that returns to the Apollo Hammersmith runs 120 minutes. If the original Joseph undercut the Biblical story, Steven Pimlott's production overwhelms it. What was once funny, tuneful and relaxed has become garish and bombastic. The final number, the second of two numbers listed in the programme as the encore (nothing is left to chance) is titled "Joseph Megamix". It's a vacuous high-energy reprise of everything that's gone before. The "Megamix" alone is about as long as the Colet Court original. Which goes to prove you can spend a lot of money on something and end up impoverishing it.

Joseph opens with scores of schoolkids running down the aisles and gathering on the stage round the narrator (the excellent Ria Jones). It could be an inaugural event at the Olympics. The clean-shaven, long-haired Joseph (the TV presenter Phillip Schofield) appears from behind a screen, singing amiably, thanks to a very powerful microphone. Joseph may interpret dreams, but his main job is to embody one. One of 12 brothers, he was born into a chorus line, but when opportunity knocked, he became a star. Done on this blockbuster scale, the triumphalist tone becomes vaguely fascistic. The thumping blandness deprives each incident of its resonance: the seduction by Potiphar's wife, the spell in prison, the seven years of famine, the threat to kill Benjamin - any hint of darkness turns into something camp and flip. It's lucky for Sir Andrew and Sir Tim that they didn't choose a story from the Koran.

On the fringe, there's a taut, imaginative adaptation by Anthony Psaila of Rebecca West's story The Return of the Soldier. The heart of the production lies in the reactions of the women when Chris (Ian Barnes) returns from the front with shellshock. The finely pitched performances from a wife (Eva Marie Bryer), a cousin (Nicola Winterson) and the first love (Penelope McGhie) are very moving. The director is Andrea Brooks.

'Present Laughter': Aldwych, WC2 (0171 379 3367); 'The Ends of the Earth': Cottesloe, SE1 (0171 928 2252); 'Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat': Hammersmith Apollo, W6 (0171 416 6022); 'The Return of the Soldier': White Bear, SW19 (0171 793 9193) to 17 Mar.

Voices
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species
voicesJonathon Porritt: The wild tiger population is thought to have dropped by 97 per cent since 1900
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him
musicIndie music promoter was was a feature at Carter gigs
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Story line: Susanoo slays the Yamata no Orochi serpent in the Japanese version of a myth dating back 40,000 years
arts + entsApplying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
News
Performers dressed as Tunnocks chocolate teacakes, a renowned Scottish confectionary, perform during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
news
Life and Style
Popular plonk: Lambrusco is selling strong
Food + drinkNaff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
News
Shake down: Michelle and Barack Obama bump knuckles before an election night rally in Minnesota in 2008, the 'Washington Post' called it 'the fist bump heard round the world'
newsThe pound, a.k.a. the dap, greatly improves hygiene
Arts and Entertainment
La Roux
music
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Fellows as John Shuttleworth
comedySean O'Grady joins Graham Fellows down his local Spar
News
people
News
Ross Burden pictured in 2002
people
News
Elisabeth Murdoch: The 44-year-old said she felt a responsibility to 'stand up and be counted’'
media... says Rupert Murdoch
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Extras
indybest
Sport
Arsenal signing Calum Chambers
sportGunners complete £16m transfer of Southampton youngster
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Junior / Graduate Application Support Engineer

    £26000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful international media organ...

    QA Manager - North Manchester - Nuclear & MOD - £40k+

    £35000 - £41000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: QA Manager -...

    Property Finance Partner

    Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: LONDON - BANKING / PROPERTY FINANCE - ...

    Agile Tester

    £28000 - £30000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: An ambitious...

    Day In a Page

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on