Monday, May 28, 2012


Reviewed by James Karas

Noel Coward called his 1939 play Present Laughter “a light comedy” and indeed it is and it is a very good choice for the opening of the Shaw Festival’s 51st season. It is by no means a pitch perfect production but its virtues outweigh its shortcomings to make for a very pleasant evening at the theatre.

Present Laughter is centered on the trials and tribulations of Garry Essendine, a highly successful theatre actor in 1930’s London. He has amusing domestic staff and is beset by women and other admirers. All of them bounce off or act as foils for Essendine’s overacting, exuberance and sheer theatricality. One never knows when he is a character in a play or the “real” Essendine because the distinction probably does not exist.

A good Essendine is an essential requirement for any production and the Shaw Festival has one in Steven Sutcliffe. He is effusive, agile, self-obsessed and thoroughly theatrical in his acting. He manages a good accent and I think captures the character and provides a lot of fun.

Essendine’s domestic staff is good for a few laughs. Mary Haney plays his clear-eyed and efficient secretary Monica who does not pull any punches. She is delivers the laughs assigned to her but Haney’s flat-toned voice and hurried delivery in the opening scene did not help.

Corrine Koslo is decked out like an extra-terrestrial as the housekeeper Miss Erikson and she gets the laughs assigned to her as does the valet Fred in the hands of James Pendarves.

The main fun is provided by the women satellites that pursue Essendine and end up in his guest room. Daphne Stillington is a youthful admirer who ends up in his apartment by forgetting her latch key. Julia Course is not quite as alluring as one would wish for Essendine’s head to be turned and director David Schurmann adding the cheap trick of her blowing her nose like a foghorn does not help.

Claire Julien is Essendine’s classy, separated, wife, a woman who has wit, intelligence and cunning. Julien does a superb job in the role. The plotting and serially unfaithful Joanna Lypiatt is played well by Moya O’Connell.

The mad playwright Roland Maule is a character that is open to almost any shenanigan that the director can dream up. He is in for the laughs – the character, not the director. In this production Schurmann has Jonathan Tan in the role as a slight, acrobatic man who can almost go into flight.

Patrick McManus and Gray Powell play Hugo Lypiatt (the jilted husband of Joanna) and Morris, the jilter. I am not sure if they were even trying to speak with a variation of an English accent but the roles are small enough for that to be ignored and form a part of the less than pitch perfect performances.

The set designed by William Schmuck is very good but the painting of a monkey can be dispensed with. The view of the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral is very good in placing Essendine’s apartment in a definite location. There are productions that simply forget to provide a window.

Director David Schurmann does a very good job for most of the production but there is some choppy timing, especially at the beginning where the actors seemed to be rushing through their lines or not waiting for the laughter to subside before continuing. Much of that will no doubt be corrected but one wonders why it was not caught in the previews.

The addition of bits of songs by Cole Porter added nothing to the production. But all of the complaints deduct only one star out of five from this unbeatable light comedy.

Present Laughter by Noel Coward opened on May 23 and will run in repertory until October 28, 2012 at the Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.

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