Andrew Scott and Indira Varma at the Old Vic
Photo by Manuel Harlan
027 – Present Laughter by Noël Coward
Garry Essendine is a star of the London stage with an ego and celebrity lifestyle to match. His social and professional diary is forever full, he enjoys the adulation and frequently amorous attention of his fans, and he employs a retinue of staff to maintain his household and career. But the insistent pressures of his life in the spotlight are taking their toll. His wife has moved out, and although she and his long-serving manager and producer continue to work together to sustain his career, as he passes the age of forty his unrestrained excesses threaten to bring down the entire structure of his professional and personal life.
Garry Essendine’s tussle with fame is the subject of Noël Coward’s classic 3-act, 4-door farce Present Laughter, in which the role of the ego-centrical actor is made in Coward’s own celebrity image. In fact Coward himself played the part in the original production in 1942, and over many revivals since the role has attracted a glittering list of stars who could not resist the flamboyant turn, including most recently Andrew Scott in an Olivier award-winning performance at the Old Vic in 2019.
Noël Coward is of course one of the most famous playwrights and performers in the history of theatre, not only writing and starring in a string of hits such as Hay Fever, Design for Living, Private Lives and Blithe Spirit, but also in the process inventing the image of himself as the consummate gentleman of style and wit, and becoming one of the first truly modern celebrities.
His plays were made in his image, what he labelled light comedies, portraying an artificial, brilliant world of privilege that he imagined and inhabited. It is a world that has certainly vanished for real, as well as from the stage, swept away by drama that reflects then fragmented modern world we live in. So why is his work still revived? What does Present Laughter have to say to 21st century audiences? Or as Coward himself might have put it: does it have to say something, is it not enough that it entertains?
Helping me to address these question, I am joined by a true Coward aficionado, theatrical agent Alan Brodie. Not only does Alan represent the Coward Estate in licensing Coward’s work for publication and performance, he is Chairman of the Noël Coward Foundation which continues Noël Coward’s charitable work by supporting educational and development projects across the Arts.
Alan Brodie graduated from Edinburgh University with a combined Arts/Law degree and spent a brief time apprenticing as a lawyer before giving it up and heading to London to work as an assistant for Michael Imison Playwrights. In 1997 he launched his own theatrical agency Alan Brodie Representation Ltd, which works with contemporary playwrights such as Emma Rice, Tim Firth, David Edgar, and Anne Devlin, to name but a few, as well as with authors’ trusts and estates, that include in addition to the Noël Coward Estate some of the greatest names in 20th century drama, such as Terence Rattigan, Thornton Wilder, Bertolt Brecht, Emlyn Williams, Patrick Hamilton, Peter Nichols, C.P.Taylor, and George Kaufman.
Alan is Chairman of The Noël Coward Foundation, a Trustee of Chichester Festival Theatre and an Ambassador for Acting For Others. During the Covid lockdown he produced the Noël Coward online entertainment A Marvellous Party, in aid of Acting For Others (UK) and the Actors Fund (US). He is also organising a major exhibition, Noel Coward: Art & Style, which opens at the Guildhall Art Gallery on June 14.
The Footnotes to our episode on Present Laughter include thoughts on the real Garry Essendine, and the morality of the amorous liaisons that they all prosecute.
Girl from the North Country is an extraordinary collaboration between the playwright Conor McPherson and the musician and song writer Bob Dylan. The result is a magical work where McPherson’s portrait of families struggling to survive in Depression America is transfigured into an uplifting theatrical experience by the ravishing period arrangements of Dylan’s songs.
The play opened at the Old Vic Theatre in London in 2017 to a rapturous response and reviews, and was followed by runs in the West End and New York.
This is a very special episode, first because I am privileged to talk with none other than the play’s author Conor McPherson, and secondly because we have also been given kind permission to include several extracts from the original cast recording of the music from the first London production.
One Podcast Two Plays! Carlo Goldoni’s Commedia dell’Arte classic A Servant to Two Masters and Richard Bean’s hilarious update One Man Two Guvnors. We explore all of the ingredients of the original play in the tradition of Commedia dell’Arte, as well as how Bean translated these so successfully into his smash hit at the National Theatre. Writer and director Justin Greene joins me to sample this multi-course theatrical banquet. (Commedia afficionados will appreciate the gourmet references!).
The dramatic tragedy of a wife who murders her own two sons in a desperate act of grief and revenge remains as disturbing and deeply moving as when it was written nearly 2,500 years ago. Medea by Euripides is timeless not only because of our fascination with Medea’s horrific crime, but for the poetry of its language, and its unflinching portrayal of a woman all but powerless in a patriarchal world. The play was recently revived at the National Theatre with a stunning performance by Helen McCrory in the title role, which is now available to view on the National Theatre at Home. I’m joined by renowned classical scholar Edith Hall to explore our enduring fascination with Medea.
Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.
Another great mix of shows this month, from Tom Stoppard’s new play, to Ibsen, Beckett and newer plays in smaller London venues.
The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country …