Review: Present Laughter, Chichester Festival Theatre until May 12
Rufus Hound gives a performance of remarkable fluency and energy, precisely the performance a CFT summer season opener demands.
He is Noel Coward’s arch over-actor Garry Essendine, a preening thesp never more than a moment away from a histrionic meltdown – and a man whose tragedy is that his awful behaviour attracts precisely the kind of people he deserves. Garry is the ultimate attention-seeker, but the attention comes at a cost.
Hound gives us an actor who doesn’t know how to stop acting; his frustration is that when he finds out how, no one takes him seriously. Hound is terrific at every turn –though not even he can save the first half from a certain sagginess, worsened by the nagging question: do we actually care tuppence about anyone on the stage?
However, the second half ups the ante considerably, played with frenetic pace as all the horrors Garry has sown come home to haunt him, a man besieged by the fruits of his own misdeeds. The telling moment comes when he turns the tables and tells them each in turn what he thinks of them, the perfect response to the indignation they have been throwing at him all evening.
Alongside him, Katherine Kingsley is beautifully self-possessed as his slightly-estranged wife, enjoying the chaos piling up around him while never losing her affection for him. Similarly impressive is Tracy-Ann Oberman as his sorely-tried secretary Monica, utterly exasperated but utterly devoted. And maybe that’s a weakness in the play. At times, it’s difficult to see why Garry inspires the love he does. But fortunately the second half doesn’t give us time to think. Instead, we get a comic tour de force with Garry in the eye of the storm he has created, battered seemingly beyond all endurance – until the moment he bites back.
Director Sean Foley needs to find considerably more oomph in the first half; the second he ramps up beautifully But the enduring memory will be Rufus Hound’s wonderful dexterity with Coward’s endless flow of words.
For other stories by Phil, see: https://www.chichester.co.uk/author/Phil.Hewitt2