I went to see "Present Laughter" on Saturday, starring Alex Jennings as Garry Essendine, the vain, womanising ageing actor and I loved it!
Anyway, having gotten to London early (for once), I decided to go and have a look at the crack in the floor of the Turbine Hall at the Tate. It's quite impressive, for a crack in the floor. Not sure I'd want to dig up the floor to put it in, but it's a talking point and people were flocking around it. I think it's a pretty audacious piece of art: either it would have been a hit (as it is) or a total flop ("why go to see a crack in the floor, when my bathroom ceiling has plenty of it's own").
Then off I trot to the National Theatre to see the play, which is about twenty minutes walk from the Tate. Of course as usual, I leave it a bit late and end up half jogging to make it in time, meaning that I end up a bit flustered, sweaty and have to climb over knees to get to my seat. To be very honest, when I looked around the matinee audience and was faced with room full of grey hair and little old ladies with zimmer frames, and realising I was one of the youngest people there, I was slightly scared that perhaps I'd picked the wrong play, maybe I should have booked to see "Hairspray" instead (Michael Ball in drag, what's not to like?).
Just before the play started a late comer walked past two rows away, I wouldn't normally mention such an common occurrence, but when I recognised him I gasped involuntarily: it was only David Walliams! I think he was with his Mum. A little flutter went round the audience, along the lines of: "ooh, look it's David Walliams." I kept quiet, for one, he knows who he is, and secondly, he's on a day off, it must be a bit galling to go everywhere with people going: "ooh, look who it is"! At the end of the play while waiting patiently to leave the auditorium behind an old lady with two walking sticks and a man to hold her upright, I realised I was actually right behind him! Within arse pinching distance. This observation came unbidden into my mind, but don't fear, I kept my hands to myself, I have no desire to be arrested.
The play starts with Daphne Stillington wondering out into Garry's flat wearing his dressing gown and pyjamas and in a wordless scene Daphne ambles around the flat looking at photo's, kissing Garry's and turning face down the one with Garry and his wife Liz, this isn't in the text and is wonderfully in keeping and comic. The entrances of the stolid and matter of fact Miss Erikson, Fred and finally Monica all compound the evident fact that they've been here before and this is anything but an uncommon occurrence. Monica is fantastically played by Sarah Woodward, she brings the dry and caustic wit that Monica needs to be Garry's foil. She's a counterpoint to all the fawning and adoring debutantes that otherwise fill Garry's world and Sarah Woodward can wring a line dry to extract every single drop of comic potential. If only she didn't sound a bit like Ann Widdecombe.
Once Daphne's been promised a bath and some orange juice she retreats into the spare room, whereupon Garry makes his first appearance having been woken by the commotion. The energy level increased quite dramatically once Alex Jennings made his entrance as Garry. His huge stage filling presence really lifts the production and from that moment, you miss Garry when he's not on stage, because he is making the play tick and providing the intensity and dynamism that's required to make the play work.
Garry makes short work of getting rid of Daphne, with help from a well practised poem by Shelley and after going over a few letters with Monica, he wafts away to have his bath. Liz, his not quite ex-wife drops in to leave a dressing gown for Garry, who is something of a connoisseur of dressing gowns and to make Monica party to her plan to get Garry to behave himself after being confronted by Daphne.
Upon the presentation of his gift from Liz, Garry scampers, rather elegantly, onto the grand piano in the centre of the room and preens in the mirror. Liz then proceeds to remind him of his advancing age and his responsibilities and drops in a little gossip about Joanna and Morris being lovers, which is news to Garry. Then Roland Maule makes his entrance. Roland is besotted with Garry and is blessed with the firmest handshake this side of Superman, causing all to either squeal in pain or contort their faces at the agony of his herculean grip. Once Roland is convinced of his deficiencies as a playwright, he leaves to sit weeping (off stage) on the stairs, whereupon Henry (Joanna's husband) and Morris, Garry's business associates, make an appearance.
Henry is ignorant of his wife, Joanna's, dalliance with Morris and once Henry leaves for Brussels, Garry rounds on Morris asking him what he's up to. Morris is played by Tim McMullan with a nervous and slightly neurotic comic lightness. He's good and brings the right amount of fluster to a minor character, and makes Morris memorable by the level of talent he brings to the character.
After the scene setting of the first act, the play moves on and Joanna's seduction of Garry is accompanied by both actors prowling around the stage after one another. While I thought Lisa Dillon, as Joanna, was pretty good, her voice sounded strange, until I realised that it only sounded odd because she appeared to be channelling Queenie circa Blackadder II. It was as if she was playing at being coquettish, and that took a little of the danger out of the scene. Joanna shouldn't be flirty and coquettish, for real energy it needed a far more predatory Joanna. It seemed as if Garry was directing the seduction and it should have been the other way round.
The following morning, Joanna flounces around Garry's flat in one of his dressing gowns, frightening the staff and lording over them while demanding breakfast and acting superiorly. Liz turns up and appraises the situation carefully and blackmails Joanna into keeping quiet about Garry and ending the affair after one night by threatening to spill the beans to Henry and Morris. Joanna agrees hurriedly after believing that Morris is at the door and retreats to the spare room to hide while Liz gets rid of Morris. It transpires to be Roland Maule at the door who insinuates himself into the flat by lying that he has an appointment with Garry. Monica dispatches Roland to the office, while Morris bumps into Garry who's trying to sneak out.
Morris is distraught, he can't find Joanna and is desperate to find her. Garry knows exactly where she is but is horrified that Morris might find out. Morris realises that someone has been staying in the spare room, but both he and Garry are amazed when Liz walks out saying that she's just been powdering her nose. Liz phones the spare room in a ruse to get Morris to believe that Joanna spent the night with her. Roland Maule exits the office and Henry turns up early demanding to know where Joanna is. Garry in his exasperation smashes himself over the head with a plate showering the stage with porcelain.
Lady Saltburn arrives with her niece Daphne only to cause more consternation. Alex shows how good he is by imbuing the word "yellow" with more comic emphasis than it's ever had before. I loved the anguished double take Garry does when Lady Saltburn divulges that Garry knew Daphne's mother years ago. A sick little joke for a rather frothy little comedy. After Henry and Morris leave, Daphne begins her audition for Garry by reading the same poem that Garry recited for her at the beginning of the play. When Daphne stumbles over a word, the rest of the cast in unison correct her, Miss Erikson even deigning to leave the kitchen to do it. Succinctly and hilariously highlighting how common it was for Garry to recite that poem to his one night stands. When Joanna finally exits the spare room in her frock, the shock makes poor Daphne faint clean away.
The final act opens with Garry pensively going through his post with Monica and then trying to find reasons for her to stay once she decides it's time to leave for the night. She leaves and then Fred goes off to spend one more night with Doris and then before Miss Erikson leaves to go to a spiritualist meeting in Hammersmith she steals all of Garry's cigarettes quite blatantly. Once alone in the flat, Garry puts on the gramophone and sits quietly, he looks bereft and lonely and quite sad. When the door bell rings, he wipes away a tear before he goes to open it.
Daphne is at the door and informs Garry she's coming with him to Africa, then Roland appears and also claims he wants to come to Africa and demands a biscuit. Both of these irritations are dispatched to the office or the spare room when the door bell rings again, this time Joanna flaunts in, also announcing that she is going to accompany Garry to Africa.
This time, Garry realising he not going to be able to cope alone, phones Liz and using their ingenious code of "I'm terribly sorry," Liz knows to rush straight round.
Eventually Morris and Henry turn up, both angry at Garry as they've read Joanna's note confessing the affair with Garry. Garry gives them all a piece of his mind and it transpires that neither Morris or Henry really want to fall out with Garry as they've just bought a theatre and want to Garry to act in it. Garry had previously been quite damning about it and when he finds out is just as coruscating. Joanna finally realises that Garry isn't interested and slaps him across the face in lieu of goodbye. Garry takes the blow and instead of commenting on it, turns round and begins to berate Morris and Henry about the Forum Theatre. After blustering on for a while, Liz tells the pair to leave and that she'll take care of Garry. After a few medicinal brandies, Liz informs Garry she's here to stay, but Garry remembering the twin horrors of Roland and Daphne still in the flat, puts on his coat and says he's coming back to her.
Overall the play was incredibly funny, with great performances. Liz was played by Sara Stewart and you can understand her irritation with Garry at times, but the character is played with warmth and the underlying intimacy between Garry and Liz is apparent. Her solicitude in returning with presents and her labours to prevent Morris and Henry finding out the truth about Joanna, all prove her obvious and deep feeling for Garry. And Garry likewise depends on Liz, she's the first one he calls when he needs help and, in my mind the most telling gesture of his love for Liz comes in the first scene. Daphne had turned face down the picture of Liz and Garry, but almost the first thing Garry does in the scene is to turn it face up again.
The minor parts of Miss Erikson and Fred were well played, with Miss Erikson ambling around in house coat with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth one of the abiding images of the play. Henry was anaemically acted and didn't have much impact unfortunately, Morris was better and far more comic character, though you did want to pat him and give him a cup of tea for his nerves.
Sarah Woodward was great and of course Alex Jennings was utterly marvellous as Garry. He brought out the inherent comedy in lines that are barely comic in the text and is so charismatic that you forgive Garry his womanising, vanity and self importance. He shows you the human under the handsome veneer, the lonely man in his ivory tower (though it leaks a bit in the rain).
The play appears quite frothy and light on the surface, with plenty of one liners and laughs, but ultimately it's about friendship, love, trust and responsibility. It's a stylish play hiding quite a sensitive heart, rather like Garry himself.