Another one of Mermaid’s splendours, Present Laughter, was shown at the Byre Theatre on January 31st and February 1st. Co-directed by Ellie McKay and Louise Anderbjörk, Noël Coward’s 1939 comedy is performed in its finest by an eleven-person cast. Whether a reflection on a coming of age, or just a good laugh, this play pokes fun at the knotty, fast-paced life of protagonist Garry Essendine, played by Marcus Judd, and his surroundings of an ostensibly close-knit circle of companions.
Full of humour and hilarity, Present Laughter illuminates the chaos of writhing secrets within a closely knit friendship group. The play introduces characters from all types of backgrounds, half of whom spend most of it trying to hide their hidden lives laden with affairs. The first scene opens with Becca Black, playing Daphne Stillington – a young, disillusioned girl hopelessly infatuated with Mr Essendine throughout the play. There seems to be a common theme of wishful women forgetting their latch keys and ending up spending the night with Essendine, willing to fix, help and dote on forty year old Garry. At the centre of the tangled web of lies, mischief and comedy, Essendine’s comedically conceited interactions with others reveal how people rarely see anything past his status as an aristocratic actor.
Charismatic, exuberant, but, perhaps most of all, lonely, Garry Essendine spends the whole play begging for solitude before finding himself in something which is rather the opposite. Akin to a comedy of Wilde’s, the protagonist dramatically expresses himself through sharp wit, which seems almost superfluous. Yet, Judd magnificently alludes to elements of vulnerability in Garry Essendine, albeit behind his overexaggerated, almost farcical gestures to proclaim a victimhood. It seems at times that however much he tries, Garry Essendine cannot stop acting, and he bounces from poetic monologues into the willing and wanting arms of young Daphne. Standing to claim his sphere of spotlight in the studio of a homely living room, Essendine remarks ‘there’s something awfully sad about being happy, isn’t there’. Comical. Conceited. Even pitiful. These are one of the many lines the actor throws out to untangle himself from the young and enamoured Daphne. Perhaps we, too, cannot help being drawn in by Essendine’s wildly and obviously theatrical monologues.
Perhaps it was an accident, then, to seduce the young Daphne with Shelley’s lyricism of ‘We Meet Not as we Parted’. Yet, as much as he goes pining for it, at times childishly crawling upon the floor and gasping for it, this – at times suffocating – companionship simply will not leave Mr Essendine’s side. In the multiple characters who knock on the door looking for the actor’s love, not just young Daphne, but also the determined Joanna Lyppiatt (Lexie Dykes) and hilarious Roland Maule (Sam Mason) it starts to become clear that Garry is looking for himself, and not love, in the mirror of all his suitors.
Even those who aren’t trying to seduce him with their offers of unconditional love and care participate in entertaining Garry’s world of fanciful frivolity. The servants of the house, Miss Erikson (Hannah Savage) and Fred (Sam Klein) arguably ground the play’s wit with their down to earth, almost unbothered attitudes towards Garry’s dramatics. Co- producer Paige says she loves the play for how every character has their own moment, evident in the staging of the production. Miss Erikson dawdles in and out of the studio, introducing the chaos of characters and then dawdling off with her cigarette, leaving poor Garry to fend for himself. His secretary, Monica Reed (Margot Pue) seems both drawn in and disgusted with the drawling compliments and attempted seductions of the public. Pue performs, in alliance with Garry’s ex-wife Liz Essendine (India Kolb) as uninterested and ridiculously practical. Snottily sarcastic to outsiders, snarky and sharp, but undoubtedly part of the furniture. This so-called set dressing only heightens the flamboyance of Garry’s acting, which very much infiltrates into his personal life.
Essendine’s childishness is reversed when he is called on by his ex-wife to persuade his friend Morris into leaving his increasingly serious infatuation with Joanna (the wife of his friend Henry, whom Essendine is later seduced by, albeit temporarily). He snaps out of his usual theatrics when Morris threatens to ruin the reputation of their group with his love for someone who is ‘not quite’ like them. Is Garry a puppet, restrained from ‘overacting’ by his ex-wife and secretary, an aging and lonely man washed away by the flattery and seduction of even lonelier women, or is he, merely, a lost actor?
However tragic his life may look when Essendine gets his wish of a few silent minutes of solitude, Roland Maule pings into the studio. Mason’s comedic performance of the eccentric aspiring playwright, overzealous and obsessed – like Joanna and Daphne – both romantically and conceptually with Garry, merited many laughs from the audience. Perhaps Maule was at his funniest when ridiculously unaware of the complexities of affairs, hidden lovers and unrequited attentions brushed under the studio carpet. Garry’s admirers, whether Roland, or Daphne and Joanna who come floating in their green dresses, want to get to know the real Garry Essendine, with Joanna asking him to ‘bring down the curtain, take off your makeup and relax’. Roland even barges in the night before Essendine’s departure to Africa to tell the actor how ‘he signifies something,’ illuminating just how much each character comes together to find their meaning in Garry.
The final scenes resort to the whole cast, and Essendine, breaking through his layers: ‘I shall tell you what is true and what is not true,’ he says, pleading for everybody to see the ‘real’ him, and pouring out the secrets stifled by his circle whilst he’s at it. Scenes accumulating into secrets of the studio, behind a closed door, or down the phone, we watch to see who is staying, leaving or saying goodbye to watch the drama unfold before Garry goes to Africa and the curtains close.