The Theatreguide.London Review
In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic
closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting
archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new
shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of
watching live theatre
Present Laughter (1981)
BBC and YouTube 2020
A 1981 West End
production of Noel Coward's comedy was recorded by the BBC and now
lies waiting to be rediscovered in the depths of YouTube.
It is an exuberant, highly stylised staging of an exuberant, highly stylised script, and while some of its enthusiasm might be a bit much for modern tastes, it offers much to delight.
Like most of Coward's
comedies, it was written as a vehicle for the author as actor, in
what could be taken as a thinly disguised self-portrait.
character is an egotistical, constantly 'on' stage star surrounded by
a loving entourage (ex-wife, secretary, producer, agent, servants)
whose only delight and function in life is to massage his ego and
protect him from any encounter with reality.
We also get to see some
of what they work so hard to protect him from, in the form of a
predatory seductress, a star-struck would-be actress and a mad
As you have every right
to expect from Coward,
every line is a perfect gem, either a self-contained witticism or a
biting zinger of a put-down. As you might not expect, there is also a
lot of physical humour, much of it generated by the star of this
version, Donald Sinden, here at the absolute peak of his comic
Possessed of a grand
style and a rich and plummy voice, both
completely appropriate to the character, Sinden had by this time
mastered a way of shamelessly milking three laughs out of every gag.
Typically he speaks a
comic line and gets a laugh. Then, startled to
discover there is an audience out there, he does an elaborate
double-take and gets a second laugh. And then, with schoolmasterly
fury he stares the audience down as if to say 'We'll have no more of
that,' and gets a third laugh. And then on to the next line.
It is a
performance style that is obviously totally artificial, and I can see
how some might find it too much. But if you go along with it you not
only enjoy its effect immensely but admire the skill with which it is
(Recently on one of TV's
old-movie channels I saw a couple
of 1950s films in which a young Donald Sinden was the romantic lead.
He was totally bland and unimpressive, without even the plummy voice,
and we must be thankful he eventually found his true style.)
Sinden might not be to your taste, though that would be a shame. The
real problem with this Present Laughter is that director Alan
Strachan pushed everyone else to try to match Sinden's
over-the-top-ness, creating a level of artificiality and intensity
that sometimes approaches mass hysteria.
Particularly done an
injustice by being made to overact are Elizabeth Counsell's
seductress and Belinda Lang's stage-struck ingénue, though the big
seduction scene between Sinden and Counsell is a total delight,
keeping us and the characters unsure through most of its length just
who is seducing who.
Even the more controlled
performances by Dinah
Sheridan as the unflappable wife and Gwen Watford as the acerbic
secretary occasionally slip into pure stylisation.
So I could understand if you gave up on this Present Laughter partway through. But I think you would regret it. It's a funny play with a lot of funny stuff in it (I haven't even got to the very young Julian Fellowes as the madman), and a record of one of the last century's greatest comic actors.
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