I had to eat first and while I had yet to establish a regular pre-theatre eating place in Richmond the Prince's Head on The Green was good enough and the beetroot and mushroom bourguignon did the trick, which it had the last time that I was there. The same can be said for the pint of Oliver's Island.
Noel Coward obviously has niche appeal and while the theatre was busy it was certainly not full and the average age looked to be somewhere in the 60s. I was a little surprised that there were a noticeable number of under sixties there as Noel Coward strikes me as being decidedly dated in much the way that the far more recent sit-coms from the seventies and eighties are. Similarly I am not sure who reads the novels of Evelyn Waugh these days.
On the plus side, dated can also mean period giving an historical perspective on how we live. After all, "the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there". Also Coward does delightful dialogue which is the main reason that I wanted to see it.
And as it was the dialogue that I was mostly interested I took a punt and went for the very end of the front row in the Dress Circle, Row A Seat 26 Price £35. I went for this as the premium seats extended across almost the whole row and I did not fancy sending £5 or so for the seat next to mine. The safety rail and the boxes did impinge on my view of the set slightly but not enough to impact my enjoyment. Still, I'll probably not book that seat again.
Present Laughter centres on a recently middle-aged actor, Garry Essendine (played excellently by Samuel West), who likes playing the field. In this field are a young actress, who has just spent the night in the spare room, his ex-wife and the wife of a colleague (Zoe Boyle). Among those watching the goings on were his long-term secretary (Phillis Logan), an unnaturally happy man-servant and an exuberant maid. The mix of characters and their well observed interactions were the main strengths of the play and the source for much of comedy.
There were also elements of farce with people hidden at various times in the office on the left and in the spare room on the right. A wife hiding from an suspicious husband may not be a new idea but it is one that worked. All the other ideas worked too and the play was humorous all the way through and frequently edged into laugh out loud territory.
Essendine is a role that Coward wrote for himself and he remained centre stage throughout. To use some dated terminology, he was a cad who cared nothing for the women he played with or for the impact that this had on others. In his eyes he was the star and everybody owed their success to him but did not respect him enough for that. Despite his character our sympathies were more with him than against him. This was partially because the wronged women were portrayed as contributing to their own fates, remember this was written in 1939.
The story got messier and more complicated before ending in much the same way that Private Lives did and, like Private Lives, the ending was more a way to draw the play to a close than an ending to a story and it was the journey to this point that mattered far more than the destination. I liked the journey.
Present Laughter was never going to be more that a light treat, like a slice of cake with your afternoon cup of tea, and the simple production and good cast made it a treat to truly savour.