TO PRESENT Noel Coward with a new silk dressing-gown would be about as inventive a gesture as giving Liberace a spangly candelabrum or Zsa Zsa Gabor the grounds for divorce. So when, in Present Laughter, the protagonist's estranged but still pally wife brings him back the said garment from her Paris jaunt, you recognise it as a little in-joke.
It's one of the many pointers to the fact that Garry Essendine - glittering star of the theatre - is a teasingly distorted reflection of his creator. 'A potent mixture of self-exposure and self-celebration' was how Coward later summed up the process. A tantalising dance of the seven dressing-gowns? Not quite, but certainly revealing and concealing at the same time.
Does this mean, then, that Garry is best played as a Coward clone? There have been performances that moved a long way from master-mimicry and still worked, notably Albert Finney's spirited portrayal of Garry as a macho Lucky Jim-type figure, fending off gruesome fans with a well-stocked repertoire of daft voices and funny faces and, even when embroiled in farce, keeping close professional tabs on the impression he was making. On the other hand, Tom Conti's Garry, to be seen now in his own revival of the play at the Globe, London, makes you question the advantages of fielding a leading man so unlike Coward.
For the part to make sense and for those finger-wagging mother-knows-best moments to come over credibly, Garry must have an aura of natural authority, and something electric that compels even those associates who know his weaknesses intimately.
All sleepy charm, lazy liquid eyes, and roll-me-over-and-tickle-me manner, Conti creates a force field nearer to the Val Doonican end of the range than to the Coward. Limbo-dancing would, you feel, come as instinctively to him as the gesticulating tirades he is forced to produce. He gets the self-involvement of the character wittily enough and the emotional immaturity, but the highly strung histrionics ask too much of Conti's metabolism. Compared with him, your average slouch is on red alert.
The production, too, is slow and heavy-handed. Coward once wrote that his dialogue required 'clarity, diction and intention and a minimum of gesture and business'. But like the recent revival of Hay Fever, this Present Laughter (set in the early Fifties) goes in for a maximum of business as though jittery about the drama. A miscast James Purefoy plays Roland Maule, the half-baked young highbrow who's obsessed with Garry, as though it would be a charity to assist him into a straitjacket.
Whenever he greets people, the clapped-out joke of the bone-crunching handshake is mercilessly recycled. Waiting for a phone call to connect, Conti mimes stabbing his stomach and his eye, then accidentally drops the knife on his foot. It's this kind of sophistication that's been added to the famous Act 2 seduction scene, where the couple ruin its clipped, erotic obliquity by pawing one another too obviously, too soon.
Gabrielle Drake has some good moments as the loyal, tartly unillusioned secretary, and Jenny Seagrove, playing Joanna with an Eva Gabor accent, is suitably alluring as the woman who fancies Garry but is not one of us and so finds herself firmly repulsed by the jealous entourage. Someone should write a play around Present Laughter which contrasts the real-life Coward clan with the fictionalised equivalent. You'd need twice the dressing gowns.
Booking: 071-494 5065
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies