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theatre review

Jennifer Phipps as Lady Saltburn, Julia Course as Daphne Stillington, Steven Sutcliffe as Garry Essendine, and Mary Haney as Monica Reed in "Present Laughter"

There are a number of off-putting problems with the Shaw Festival's 2012 season opener, Noël Coward's Present Laughter, but the biggest one is that the production seems to be trapped in the closet.

A 1939 hit for the British playwright once nicknamed "The Master," this farce concerns a dashing, internationally acclaimed playwright, actor and songwriter whose plans to leave on an African tour are complicated by romantic intrigue in his close circle.

Garry Essendine – played by a swashbuckling Steven Sutcliffe – doesn't exactly make things easy for himself, or the staff at his apartment, by constantly falling into bed with admirers.

Among those ensnared by the boundless charms of Garry – who Coward acknowledged was based on himself – are an irritating young actress named Daphne (Julia Course); his ex-wife and best friend, Liz (Claire Jullien); and the scheming wife of a West End producer, Joanna (Moya O'Connell).

Also being shoved in and out of the spare bedroom is a male would-be playwright named Maule (Jonathan Tan) who, much to Garry's chagrin, keeps showing up unannounced to profess his adoration. This character is dismissed as "mad" by the other characters, a gag that, along with the frequent condescending jokes about Africa, leaves a bad taste in the modern mouth.

There are two competing views of Coward's comedies. One is that the gay writer was, as director Richard Eyre has suggested, a kind of war correspondent on the battle of the sexes, training his outsider queer eye on the straight guise.

The other is that Coward's witty, debonair characters are hiding their true sexual selves from the public, as the playwright did all his life. "What a wonderful play [ Present Laughter]would be if – as Coward must have wanted – all those love affairs were about homosexuals," director Peter Hall wrote in his diaries.

Schurmann's production is an unhappy and presumably accidental collision between these two schools of thought. While Sutcliffe's central performance suggests a homosexual lothario in disguise, the rest of the characters seem entirely oblivious.

I do recognize it's stepping into a bit of a minefield to suggest that a particular actor is unconvincing as straight – in part because it's silly to assert that gay men act one way and straight men another. But with his hair slicked back, a higher-pitched, flamboyant delivery and frequent swishing of his dressing gown, Sutcliffe's Garry certainly reads as gay to a modern audience.

Any attempts to shrug his performance off as camp or metrosexual or simply an ambiguous British man are difficult since he has absolutely zero sexual chemistry with any of the women in his life – most inexplicably, with O'Connell's smouldering Joanna. Her shoulders, provocatively unveiled in the second act, are the kind that would launch a thousand ships, but here Garry seems hardly roused enough to send out a dinghy.

So, that's the pink elephant stomping incessantly on the stage. Otherwise, this pandering production is a fairly hit-or-miss affair, aside from a gorgeous set by William Schmuck. In his Shaw directing debut, Schurmann, a long-time company member, demonstrates a fondness for cheap slapstick, and spoils much of the comic timing by rushing the action.

Present Laughter is largely about the prison of persona; Garry's underlying sadness, the meat of the play, stems from the fact that people around him often take him seriously when he's not, but never seem to believe him when he is serious.

With its over-the-top, theatrical performances, Schurmann's production muddies that theme. The two main young actors perform hysterically, and not in the positive comedic sense. As Daphne, Course is constantly weeping and honking her nose into a handkerchief, while Tan's Maule exhaustingly rattles off his lines while leaping up and down over the furniture. The talent and technique here are poorly shepherded.

The Shaw Festival's more established ensemble members manage to keep a little humanity and dignity for their characters. There are marvellous portraits of Garry's business partners from Gray Powell and Patrick McManus, and his wry secretary from Mary Haney, while Corrine Koslo is a scream as his Scandinavian spiritualist maid.

Present Laughter strikes me as one of Coward's weaker famous plays. In addition to the self-pitying tone about how difficult it must be to be (like) Noël Coward, the same situation essentially repeats over and over – unexpected arrivals that lead to the characters popping in and out of spare rooms. Coward didn't find a satisfying resolution to the conflicts he set up, so the comedy simply peters out before he tacks on an ending borrowed from Private Lives and calls it a day. The intermittent wit and a couple of excellent speeches about sex and art aren't enough to save it – this production, anyway.

Present Laughter

  • Written by Noël Coward
  • Directed by David Schurmann
  • Starring Steven Sutcliffe
  • At the Shaw Festival

Present Laughter runs at the Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., until Oct. 28.