02 October 2007

Present Laughter – National Theatre, Saturday 29th September

I don’t know why it is that every time I see Alex Jennings perform, I’m ill. Or maybe its that I’m ill every time I see Alex Jennings perform. Maybe it’s the way he sprays spit all over his fellow actors all the time. Whatever it is, I had a stinking cold when I saw him in “The Alchemist” and I had a stinking cold when I saw this, so I had a hard time finding this production funny even though the people around me seemed to be shrieking their tits off with laughter. Lord only knows what they found to laugh at so much. Lets face it, this is not one of Coward’s “greats”. This is no “Private Lives”, no “Tonight at 8.30”. It tips the scales at almost three hours long and there seemed to me to be no particularly memorable lines, nor really any traceable story line. In fact, there seemed to be two different plays – one in the first half, one in the second. The play in the first half seems to be a rather bitter, savage diatribe about “the modern world and how neither I nor my plays fit into it any more” and the one in the second teeters on the brink of farce with various wives disappearing into offices and spare rooms so that their various husbands don’t realise they’ve spent the night with the lead character. There are also comedy foreign housekeepers, infatuated playwrights who want to worship at the feet of the master (and very possibly do other things to them as well) and devoted, dykey secretaries to add to the “fun” of the piece. Unfortunately no trouserless vicars or French maids with feather dusters.

I think I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that I don’t like Alex Jennings. He seems to me to be one of those actors – and there are several in each generation – who make a living out of playing themselves. Mr. Jennings seems to have gone to the “Jim Carrey School of Acting” – in order to express any kind of emotion, it is only necessary to screw your face up in some way. In this production we get “Alex Jennings doing the slightly faded but still devastatingly attractive to women and witty matinee idol” role – a role which Coward assumed during his time and one that most people get tired of very quickly; it just dates so badly. Actually, I think that is the main problem with this type of play – its just dated badly. Its not yet old enough to be accorded historical status – it just looks old and tired; the type of play that you could comfortably take Great Aunt Flossie to see on a wet Thursday afternoon in Frinton. There were a couple of very good performances here – Sarah Woodward was very funny as the devoted, brusque, slightly dykey secretary and Sara Stewart was spot on as Liz Essendine – both had the right “look” and “feel” for the period. Both were helped by wonderfully accurate costumes, beautifully cut. Simon Wilson and Tim McMullan as Henry and Morris proved once again that Coward could not write believable, fully rounded, supporting male roles, only little satellites that revolve around a central sun. I was fed up with Garry Essendine by the end, hoping desperately that he would hurry up and get on his wretched boat to Africa and take all his stupid friends with him.

On first sight, I thought the set design was wonderful – lots of forced perspectives, different levels etc. But the colour – a strident turquoise – was very hard on the eyes after three hours.

And nowhere in the programme can I find anything that tells me why the play is called “Present Laughter”. Is it a line from the play itself? Or a quote from something else. Answers on a postcard, please.
What the critics thought:

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