Strong Acting Carries British Farce in Switchyard Theatre Company's "Present Laughter"
Switchyard Theatre Company’s production of Noel Coward’s Present Laughter, directed by Nadia Bodie-Smith and hosted by the Durham Arts Council, was chock full of talent and skill. This helped to keep the audience's attention throughout the lengthy comedy. The script, written in 1939 and originally produced in 1942, contains wordy dialogue, a repetitive plot, and dated language. This did not stop the cast and crew from delivering exceptional performances and stunning technical elements.
The play is a British farce, marked by plenty of hiding in separate rooms, naughty romantic flings, and lots of secret keeping. The script follows comedic actor Garry Essendine through a midlife crisis as he evaluates the genuineness of his career and his relationships. He is stalked by a young lover and actress who he mistakenly brings home after she forgets the key to her flat. He is also followed by a playwright who craves more depth in the famous actor’s roles, and the seductive and entrancing wife of his manager. All the while he grapples with a separation from his wife, the monotony of his career, and the secrets of his managing team. During the entire play, he is preparing for a grand trip to Africa where he will perform with an acting troupe. A trip, he alludes, he may not return from. Garry is deeply unhappy and lonely, juggling the expectations of eccentric fans and partners, and is called out frequently for his lack of transparency. Garry must weed through the noise to discover who really has his best interests at heart and who cares for him despite the walls he puts up and the trouble he causes along the way.
Upon entering the theatre, the audience is met with the vibrant and creative set design by Nadia Bodie-Smith and technical direction by Charles Machalicky. The set, designed to evoke a wealthy bachelor's loft, draws the eye immediately to the center, which houses large, billowing, white curtains. They frame an imaginary window and crystal decanters filled with spirits. From there, the eye travels outward to moss-green walls decorated with creatively designed theatrical posters bearing the face of our lead actor Garry (played with roguish charm and delightful self-actualizing agony by actor John Frazier.) Other trinkets from Garry’s travels scatter the walls, bookshelves, and end tables thanks to prop designer Kristie Kennedy’s carefully crafted selection. The furniture sets the time period and adds delicacy to the stage, matching the repeated comments about Garry enjoying fine things. Stages left and right lead to the study and the spare room. These are places where the nebbish fanboy and playwright, Roland (played with geekish un-comfortability by Jamin Wade) the young, naive, and dramatic actress, Daphne (Dani Coan), and the elegant seductress, Johanna (Akili Holder-Cozart), spend a good chunk of the play locked away from Garry’s other lovers and fans.
Kudos to costumer Jodeya Brown for the many, many silk robes and the 1940s attire that accented the play seamlessly. The patterns and bright colors matched the zany energy of the play and the kookiness of the characters. Lighting (and sound) by Valentina Moya was also appropriate, brightly illuminating the comedic action during daytime scenes, and setting the cozy and intimate mood of nighttime scenes. A scene that particularly stood out was the tender, lamp-lit scene between Monica and Garry in act 2 after Garry’s going away party. A rare moment of calm and genuine connection.
Standout performances included Tania Kelly’s Monica, whom she played with sardonic wit and excellent comedic facial expressions. She punctuated the dialogue with an occasional modern affect which brought relevancy and relatability to the character. Shana Fisher played the patient and dependable wife, Liz with exceeding warmth and a mischievous twinkle in her eye. These two women reflected the two most genuine characters in Garry’s life with poise and grace as he makes mistake after mistake.
Cameron Waters plays a believable drunken, lovesick dweeb with an obsession for Akili Holder-Cozart’s dazzling and elegant (though scheming) Johanna. Waters pines and whines his way through both acts, finishing with a perfectly drunken portrayal of comedic heartbreak. Holder-Cozart demands the attention of all whenever she is onstage.
Additional mentions go to Dani Coan’s melodramatic actress Daphne for her skill in concocting a myriad of new and dynamic ways to express her unrequited love and subsequent rejection. Also, Stephanie Spohrer’s positively absurd facial expressions and unexplained staring fits elicited uproarious laughter on several occasions.
The strong cast and crew did an excellent job of carrying what could be considered to be a lengthy and dialogue-heavy play. They kept the energy high through two, repetitive scenes where multiple characters are inconveniently hiding in Garry’s apartment and managed to find new ways to keep the audience engaged despite a cumbersome script. While this play has concluded its run, I highly recommend catching one of Switchyard Theatre Company’s next plays, as they consistently deliver high-quality and thoughtful productions.
3/7/2023 11:16:26 am
My name is incorrect in the screenshot you took from the website. This has been corrected on the website. It would be nice if you could also fix it.
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Miranda Curtis is a theatre maker and story teller in the Raleigh area. She loves acting, singing, writing, hiking, kayaking, and her cat Ernest (as in the importance of being).