When one of Cape Town’s most beloved theatres celebrates 30 years of entertainment, it only seems fitting that one legend is complemented by another, such as Noël Coward, or in this instance rather his memory and style as captured in the semi-autobiographical farce Present Laughter, currently on stage at Theatre on the Bay until 10 March 2018.
The scene is set in an art-deco-inspired apartment that plays home to self-centred middle-aged comedy actor Garry Essendine (Patrick Ryecart). His philandering ways frequently leave his cynical secretary Monica (Michelle Maxwell), chain-smoking spiritualist house-keeper, Miss Erikson (Jo da Silva), loyal valet Fred (Dean Roberts), and strong-willed estranged wife Liz (Kate Normington) to deal with his admirers-turned-indiscretions. One such starry-eyed indiscretion, aspiring actress Daphne (Skye Russell), wanders onto the stage as the curtain goes up on what turns out to be a sequence of “most discouraging” days for Garry, as he talks himself into trouble more often than not.
The context of the farce is best described by Monica, when she comments to Daphne that she knows Garry “less intimately than some, better than most”. Coward would approve of Maxwell’s performance. She turns Monica into the Queen of Shade as she keeps every other character in line with but the lift of an eyebrow or a stinging quip.
Kate Normington brings an independent, opinionated air to her vibrant performance as Liz, which makes for a breath of fresh air. One frequently looks to her for the laughs, especially when Liz gets the opportunity to indulge in some good old-fashioned banter. Along with Maxwell and Normington, Da Silva and Roberts keep the farcical flow of the production going.
In a play about a narcissistic womaniser who finds himself entrapped by his own follies in a 1940s era, it is somewhat ironic (yet appropriate) that it is primarily the women in the cast who steal the show.
Present Laughter certainly has its humorous moments when Ryecart and the rest of the cast hint to the wit of Noël Coward, who with the flick of his pen could turn a compliment into a delightful insult with a lingering sting. A farce of this nature should have the audience going “That’s so Coward!” with every elegant, verging on condescending, utterance. What is traditionally a three-act play has however been shortened into a two-act staging. This kind of direction choice by Fred Abrahamse turns this into a Coward-Lite experience. Quips and jabs are still very much at play, but the sting is not as fierce when it comes to producer Henry (John Maytham) and manager Morris (Marcel Meyer). For those not married to the traditional Cowardesque style, nothing would seem amiss. This is still an entertaining theatre night out.
Present Laughter, in this shortened form, may not present laughter as often as Coward intended, but it does offer humorous interludes, with surges of wit and a strong fem-fantastic presence. Even with less laughter, it remains relatable, because as Garry says, "There is something very sad about being happy". Tickets are available at Computicket to see this celebratory production before run ends 10 March 2018.