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Present Laughter
By Rob Ormsby

Like many of the other mainstage shows at Stratford, Noël Coward's Present Laughter aims at a broad appeal with an accessible, entertaining production. Unlike a number of those crowd pleasers, it succeeds admirably.

The plot is not exactly complicated: just before departing for an African tour, aging 1930s English theatre idol Garry Essendine (Brian Bedford) is besieged by a trio of cloying admirers. Despite the warnings and best efforts of his estranged wife Liz (Domini Blythe) and his secretary Monica (Seana McKenna), he cannot be rid of these fans, two of whom he beds.

Of course, things go from sticky to stickier for Garry. After he dismisses his first conquest, Daphne (Michelle Giroux), she returns for a recital with her aunt (Lally Cadeau), a wealthy and generous patron of the arts. Paramour number two is his business partner Hugo's (Raymond O'Neill) wife Joanna (Sarah Botsford), who gets at the lead by sleeping with his other business partner Morris (Shane Carty). The third admirer is an untalented, obsessed playwright, Roland Maule (Tim MacDonald). This leads to Garry's farcical efforts to be free of these maddening complications.

More important than the profundity of the action in any remounting of Present Laughter are the expectations of a Cowardesque wit and style that audiences bring with them, and Bedford, who directs and also stars, as well as his cast and artistic team reward our anticipation with a production of verbal and physical panache.

Michael Yeargan has created an elegant version of the standard drawing room set that blends Art Deco touches (particularly a lovely staircase upstage), a grand piano, and assorted pieces of handsome furniture for Garry's studio in which all of the action occurs. Costume designer Catherine Zuber has outfitted the characters in smart business suits and beautifully-tailored formal wear, ranging from tasteful period tuxedoes to Joanna's shockingly aquamarine gown. There's also some nice satin sleepwear and a selection of de rigueur dressing gowns for the lead.

Bedford has a great feel for the material, and has trained the cast with precision. His actors inhabit this sumptuously-designed world naturally, delivering witty and charming dialogue with tremendous accuracy and timing. Although the care the director has taken is evident in the uniformly laudable performances, the best, next to Bedford's is Seana McKenna's flawless portrait of an intelligent and hyper-efficient Monica. Besides handling the comic dialogue with verve she also gets one of the most withering quips: When Garry:worries about struggling for breath under mosquito netting in Africa, McKenna deadpans at exactly the right moment "Who with?"

But the main attraction here is unquestionably Bedford, who manages effortlessly the overlap of his own star status with Garry's, mirroring the overlap between Garry and Coward, who originally wrote the role for himself. Bedford is entirely at ease with the character, whether he is playing the part for Essendine's hollow sentiment (rejecting Daphne with a stagy "Just say 'Au revoir'") or his breezily deflating humor (as when he refers to Monica's efficiency as "churning through life like some frightening old warship"). He hits his peak,, when, entirely exasperated with the tangled web of sexual hypocrisy, he cries: "For the love of God, stop being theatrical!" It is our good fortune that the veteran actor-director refuses to heed his own character's advice. If he had, we would be without this gem of a comedy.

For links to other Stratford Festival reviews see our Stratford Festival Page

Present Laughter
By Noêl Coward
Directed by Brian Bedford
Cast: Michelle Giroux, Patricia Collins, Brian Tree, Seana McKenna, Brian Bedford, Domini Blythe, Tim MacDonald, Shane Carty, Raymond O'Neill, Sara Botsford, Lally Cadeau
Set Design: Michael Yeargan
Costume Design: Catherine Zuber
Lighting Designer: Michael J. Whitfield
Sound Designer: Jim Neil
Running Time: 3 hours with 2 intermissions
Stratford Festival Festival Theatre, Downie St., Stratford, Ontario Telephone: 1-800-567-1600
Tues-Sun @8pm, 2pm in rep Previewing June 14, 2003, Opening June 26, 2003, Closing November 1, 2003
Reviewed by Rob Ormsby based on 8/29/03 performance

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