Noël Coward’s largely autobiographical Present Laughter proved to be an excellent choice to lift off the Shaw Festival’s 2012 season. Written just a few months before the outbreak of WW II, its covey of rocky relationships and fragile alliances is most certainly at one with the political upheavals of the day—but, in Coward’s tight, fast-paced script the only casualties are egos and hearts rather than lives and limbs.
In his directorial début for the Shaw, David Schurmann has crafted a production that plays to strengths of his longtime colleagues’ ensemble acumen and reveals a masterful understanding of the master of theatrical psyches, music and mirth. Perhaps his most inventive decision revolves around the coming tour of Coward’s alter ego, Garry Essendine (those who know their German will smile at the juxtaposition of eating and dining—Steven Sutcliffe is smashing as the overflowing-with-himself star), to Africa. That destination is brought to referential, oversized life thanks to designer William Shumuck’s inclusion of an all-seeing Capuchin monkey on the apartment set’s staircase mural. But there’s a much more apt depiction of the famous long-tailed primates to come.
The notorious womanizer (the show opens with Daphne Stillington—Julia Course is dutifully naïve, with only the seismic nose blowing gag a tad out of tune with the already farcical proceedings—sporting Garry’s sleeping attire, emerging fully satisfied from the spare bedroom) also finds himself being courted by a “serious” playwright who would rather make scenes with the worldly actor than write them. Roland Maule (the surname’s possible meaning, “an act of tackling a player,” seems entirely appropriate for this character’s histrionics and is also subtly at one with “I Get a Kick Out of You”—one of several Cole Porter songs that further enliven the show) is brought to energetically determined life by Jonathan Tan—more than living up to his promise from the last two seasons. But the icing on this manic cake is Tan being asked to scamper about the Festival Theatre’s stage as if he were a tree-swinging creature rather than just a Chekhov devotee. This is a brilliant piece of stagecraft that simultaneously brings new meaning to “monkey business” but also ushers Coward’s/Garry’s sexual ambiguity hilariously into play.
The other apple in the matinée idol’s eye is Joanna Lyppiatt (Moya O’Connell offers a convincing siren call); former wife but still in the “family,” Liz Essendine is done up to a realistically rational T by Claire Jullien. A pair of not-above-straying-themselves men (Gray Powell is wonderfully oozy as Morris; Patrick McManus makes the most of his reported out-of-town assignations) artfully complete the set of perennial adulterers. Jennifer Phipps gives Lady Saltburn just the right air of grandeur and social refinement that deftly balances her niece Daphne’s post-coitus audition.
Of the three household staff, Mary Haney takes the honours as long serving/suffering secretary to he-who-must-be-displayed. Corrine Koslo delivers some engaging physical humour as the cigarette-stealing maid goes about her chores; James Pendarves plows through the eventually tiresome (through no fault of his own) “righty-o’s” with admirable servitude but also manages a couple of hat tosses that would be the envy of vaudevillians from any era.
Judging from the Festival’s opening night crowd (a heady mixture of insider chuckles, howls of delight at the mayhem and the odd squirm when one of the staged fictions came too close to home), this Coward concoction will be happily received until the end of its four-month run. JWR