Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

Loft present laughter

Leonie Slater (Daphne), Hali Keenan (Lady Saltburn), Chris Gilbey-Smith (Garry) and Richard Baldwin (Roland Maule)

Present Laughter

The Loft, Leamington


As The Loft celebrates its welcome and impressive centenary, one is beguiled by the sheer range of repertoire it has staged over the passing years. Nothing, from Shakespeare and his Jacobean contemporaries, to Restoration Comedy, Chekhov or Harold Pinter has lain outside its remit.

The challenge of risking the most testing repertoire seems not to daunt it at all. To The Loft, so rich in experience, it all seems grist to the mill.

Over four decades, or even longer, Noël Coward penned more than 50 plays and a mass of highly diverting Musicals; yet only five or six plays – Blithe Spirit, or Relative Values for instance (and that’s not bad going) - have firmly caught on, joining the mainstream theatrical stock of stageworks and often enjoying incredibly long runs.

Daringly The Loft has ventured to put on as many as 15 of his plays: bold indeed. Frequent returns in many theatres to Hay Fever or Private Lives, true, yet who often hears of Shadows of the Evening, or The Vortex, or Tonight at 8.30? The Loft has rolled up its sleeves and ventured to produce them all.

Its latest foray, running till Saturday 18th, is Present Laughter, which over a period the company has staged twice before. Coward called it, as he did many of his offshoots, ‘light theatre’. Or, as we momentarily hear, with amiable dismissiveness, ‘commercial theatre’. It has acquired so many accolades from eminent critics galore that one hesitates to dare call it ‘trite drama’. But despite its wit and intermittent stings – this play, focused mainly on a kind of ‘high society’ which is the area Coward famously liked to toy with, is not much more probing than a Brian Rix Whitehall farce. Entertaining? Well, yes-ish. Perceptive? Revealing? Not really.  Adequate? I wonder.

But we have to accept a Coward play as he himself perceived them to be: as that very light entertainment, not probing or revealing or especially, let alone phenomenally, insightful, but something to cheer, amuse, perhaps even delight. We need not look for profundity. But this makes it harder for an ensemble. The task facing a well-knit team such as the Loft’s is to hold the audience’s attention and not let it go.

Yet they can do it. Somehow they always manage. To every play The Loft undertakes, it brings a zest, a joy, where appropriate a real sense of fun; or conversely, of pain, poignancy; or conversely, depth and unusual insight.

loft present 2

Jessica Newborough (Liz), Jeremy Heynes (Henry), Chris Gilbey-Smith (Garry) and Edward Griffiths (Morris)

Here, one must say, the pace of Lorna Middleton’s production was one of this staging’s most satisfying aspects. The first half hour, getting a longish Act I under way, certainly had zip and forward momentum. It shifted. It’s what this rather wordy script needs. And it worked.

In fact it took off like a zeppelin, thanks to a scintillating lead-in by Leonie Slater as the notably young, wildly enthusiastic Daphne Stillington. Her twee posh voice, her excitability, her girlish fads, her sheer youthful beauty, her teasingly unpredictable moves and facial quirks are a constant hoot.

Although we are stuck on the same set for all three acts, Richard Moore’s quite capacious all-blue design for Garry Essendine’s gently showy London flat achieves its end well. There are some four entrance points, which assists the variety of the whole. With its domestic flair, and a feeling of generous space, perhaps over-the-topness, it catches the flavour of actor Garry’s sense of décor well. It supplies plenty of play area for the characters to cavort and skip, shuffle or saunter around. Among the props, a chess board seems a little puzzling: underused, it’s surely not capitalised on to the full. Not that that detail matters much. It serves to furnish. A hint of music might have helped.

It’s worth saying now, in passing, that one or two ‘lesser’ roles in this revue-like fricassee deserve a wealth of applause on their own. A fair bit of the entertainment stemmed from their gambits and varied appearances. Christopher Bird’s valet, Fred, is somewhere between cheeky and resigned.

He fulfils his role dutifully enough, but you always feel something else is going on in his mind. It’s an inventive performance, and characterful, not just a routine time filler, but has quite a lot of originality about it. In his quite ordinary tasks and required situations, there’s a buzz about him. Surely Bird’s a very useful asset for The Loft, past, present or future.

Linda McElwee potters around browsily enough as the Scandinavian maid, Miss Erikson. She speaks quite softly, which may betray an appropriate deference. Her continual brandishing of a brightly coloured feather duster might perhaps have been varied a bit more.

Her moves are often amusing; maybe she needs a little more director’s attention to make a full impact. All the costumes – not least the frequent changes of Garry, the flamboyant central character - have a flair and where called for, a distinct elegance. Witness that – an astonishing glaring, glowering red, in between scarlet and crimson - of the flighty adulterous Joanna.

present loft 3

Leonie Frazier (Joanna) and Chris Gilbey-Smith (Garry)

Indeed an extended dialogue between Leonie Frazier’s Joanna, carefree and risqué, insistent and presuming, the bitchiest and most sarcastic of the characters, though ironic too (‘It’s all very fragrant, isn’t it, Garry?’), and also penetrating and observant (‘It’s difficult to know what you’re really like, underneath the trappings’), plus sharp and witty too ‘I could cry now, very effectively, if only I had the technique’; and Jessica Newborough’s Liz – Garry’s ex- who will in a final flourish return to him – is one of the garish highlights which gives the play a liftup. Frazier is shamelessly, flouncily entertaining; Newborough is one of the treats of the evening. She takes Coward’s not always absorbing text and gives it brio. Her one-on-one exchanges with Garry are even more appealing. There is a really meaningful, well-designed interplay of personalities here; even more so than the intermittently bristling, goading duet between Joanna and Garry. The play works especially well when any two are pitched against each other.

At one moment there are nine people onstage (there is something I find a bit unrobust about the lightweight sound of the flooring in amateur stagings). What point Coward has in introducing two ancillary figures, Morris and Henry, both of whom (as Manager and ‘Producer’) have a role in beefing up matinee star Garry’s appearances, it’s not always easy to see. There are one or two punchy exchanges with Garry, but they’re both fairly vapid. There’s not much for either, even the cheated husband, to do. Edward Griffiths and Jeremy Heynes gamely make of them what they can: but there’s not much to make. They’re – it might be argued – one, or two, of Coward’s flops in this play.

There’s a delicious, determined and hilariously overdressed vignette from Hali Keenan as the interfering if well-intentioned Lady Saltburn. If the play drags at times – quite a lot of times, actually – just a few minutes of her were enough to vitalise and merit a giggle. Sue Moore, one of The Loft’s magnificent stalwarts, has no problem in making the most of Garry’s intelligent, knowing, commanding secretary, Monica. It’s only a mildly demanding task for someone with such well-tried gifts, but typically she brings a clever variety to the role. Shrewd, subtle, firm, astute, calming and controlling, with a sharp wit and crisp repartee, but essentially loyal and supportive to her flighty, unpredictable, teasingly argumentative boss, she runs the show effortlessly, as if she, rather than Morris, were his real manager. Her trysts with Garry are always entertaining, as she reins him in from his more nonsensical antics.

It’s Gilbey-Smith’s Garry who holds Coward’s show together. Mildly, though not excessively camp, he’s something of a poseur but no fool. ‘I’m always acting – watching myself go by.’

present loft 3

Leonie Slater (Daphne)

He trips along with a joyous mix of indifference to and engagement with anyone – Liz, Joanna - raring to take him on. His witticisms flow with pleasing regularity. ‘Tear it up. People should write legibly or not at all.’ ‘I shall never wear a toupée, Monica, however bald I get.’ ‘Adolescent, pseudo-intellectual poppycock.’ ‘Perhaps you’d rather I lived in a bath chair’. ‘The sooner we turn that spare room into a library, the better’ (the spare room is the haven into which several of the women flee to escape discovery).

Garry dives in with a quip here, a bon mot there, waggish and sparkling, fanciful and droll, and it’s his amiable patter that provides much of the verbal energy to the facetious script. Keeping things going like that is an art, and one he managed ever cheerfully, indeed incessantly, to display. His twosomes with Liz, his ex-, with her familiarity and knowhow, give the splendid Jessica Newborough plenty of scope for the kind of banter and chaffing – some of it on the edge of serious – by which she joins battle with, or cajoles, the fretful, Garry. Things always hot up dramatically when she’s around.

Someone in the interval mentioned the quality of the speaking. That observer was right. Everything was appreciably audible, the whisking together of consonants and vowels, the rise and fall of voice, the essential vitality and allure of the diction, was as handsome and intelligent as Lorna Middleton’s well thought-out moves, which almost always, on almost every occasion, seem to be relevant rather than merely diversionary. Here were two attributes that gave the production its very agreeable momentum.

But wait, still to mention, and applaud, is Richard Baldwin’s wonderfully dotty performance as the aspiring young writer, Roland Maule. First time in, way out of his depth, he serves up a whole gamut of crazy, fluttery gestures. Initially, fragile and confused, ardent and hero-worshipping, he takes everything anyone says literally; then gradually, even if still ridiculous, clocks into, and almost joins in with, the mood, frumpy or ticklish or ironic, of those round him. The situations he’s enveloped in are a kind of education for him. And watching, laughing incessantly, at Maule’s near-conversion was one of the joys of the evening. In a way, gradually, he almost stole the show. What a treat.

Like several of Coward’s better-known stageworks, Present Laughter had a rich and enviable success, clocking up a welter of performances either side of the Atlantic. The roster of famous actors who have taken the lead role is a remarkable who’s who of the London stage.

The sharpness of kitchen sink drama hadn’t yet arrived. If Coward called it ‘light’, it does in some respects actually anticipate that new phase. Critics of considerable stature have applauded it to the skies. I don’t think I would. Despite the amusement of four characters in a row teaming up to join Garry on a forthcoming African tour, making a bit of a whimsical comic denouement, the play does rather falter along. Action there may be, a few scattered telephone calls here and there, but not a lot. Interaction, yes. But I’d – shamefully - incline to give it a beta plus. Nothing more. To 18-06-22.

Roderic Dunnett


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