It’s back to the 1930s again – a popular destination for the White Rock Players Club in recent seasons – with the upcoming production of Present Laughter by Noel Coward (The Playhouse, 1532 Johnston Rd., April 3-20).
This time the setting is London, circa 1937-1938 – when ominous war clouds had begun to gather, but had not yet dimmed the lights of the city’s fabled West End theatrical district.
One of the brightest stars of that scene is suave, self-obsessed leading man Garry Essendine. A noted lothario, he seems, on the surface, to epitomize all the poise and wit of the characters he plays. But – as even the briefest visit to Garry’s luxurious London flat reveals – his real life is one of chaos.
As he prepares to depart on a tour of Africa, he’s literally hemmed-in by the indiscreet world of British theatre in those days, and the types who populated it.
These include obsessive hangers-on, potential lovers, adulterous friends and cronies, and the protective, long-suffering employees who keep him functioning – even an ex-wife who, despite their divorce, still occupies a central place in his circle.
Written in 1939, Present Laughter is evidently Coward’s valedictory to a pre-war era he must have realized was coming to an end (by 1942, when it was first produced as a starring vehicle for him, amid an atmosphere of wartime austerity, it must have seemed positively nostalgic).
And, as director Susanne de Pencier agreed, the play is also an in-joke parody of his own lifestyle and associates – minus any overt homosexuality.
That could not be openly depicted at the time, she said (sexual relationships between men were forbidden by law in Britain until 1967), “but it’s hinted at with at least one of the characters.”
Even with the era’s mandatory heterosexual orientation, it’s clear, in retrospect, that Coward was having fun with both his own celebrity and the expectations of the theatre-going audience.
And de Pencier said she’s also having fun with the current production – with a dream cast that mixes both White Rock audience favourites and promising newcomers.
“If they were off-book, they could do a show right now,” she enthused last week.
“They make my job quite easy – it’s such a joy to have people who know how to create, without having to be told every move. And they all get along really well – you can tell there’s a real rapport between them.”
Able farceur Dann Wilhelm (most recently seen in The Comedy of Tenors) returns, in Coward-esque dressing gown, as the besieged Garry.
“Dann’s fabulous,” de Pencier said. “He’s almost exactly the right age for Garry, although the part is often cast older, and very creative – he has a great ability to come up with stuff and think on his feet.”
The ultra-versatile Lori Tych (who filled in for Fred Partridge, in male garb, for two performances of Tenors) has the role of his ex, the sophisticated Liz Essendine, who has managed to maintain a perfect relationship with Garry, de Pencier said – provided they aren’t married.
“I can’t think of a better Liz Essendine – I felt like saying hallelujah when she came out to audition,” she added.
Three of Wilhelm’s frequent comedy foils (most recently seen in the panto, Robin Hood and the Skytrain of Doom, which he also wrote and directed) are also on-hand to add to the fun: Jenn Lane as Joanna Lyppiatt, amorous, straying spouse of Garry’s producer; Bryce Paul Mills as Garry’s tippling manager Morris Dixon, and Reginald Pillay as would-be dramatist, and all-round pill, Roland Maule.
“Jenn told me, ‘I don’t know if I can play a femme fatale,’ but she has a lovely anarchic quality to her that works very well with the character,” de Pencier said.
“Bryce is doing some of the best work I’ve ever seen him do, while Reg, who I saw (as Prince John) in the pantomime, is perfect as Roland – he’s a complete nutcase. His scenes with Dann – my stomach hurt from laughing so hard.”
Tall, imposing Greg Tunner (who menaced Wilhelm effectively in Don’t Dress For Dinner) returns as Hugo, Joanna’s aggrieved husband.
“We’ve been able to use his physicality in the role in ways that haven’t been done in other productions,” de Pencier said.
And Michelle Collier is right at home as Garry’s faithful, long-serving secretary Monica Reed, she added.
“Who else could you ask for in that role?” she said. “She has quite a few scenes with Lori as Liz, and I hardly have to give them any notes. They just go on – and on – by themselves!”
Janelle Carrs appears as as aspiring ingenue Daphne Stillington; and Heather Christie as the regal Lady Saltburn.
“Janelle is doing her first major part. I noticed her in the pantomime, and when she came to audition as Daphne, she was fabulous – she just blew me away. She has this very lovely ’30s face – huge eyes – and she takes direction eagerly, and when she comes back to the next rehearsal, she’s incorporated everything I gave her.
“Heather does a lovely little cameo – she’s like the Queen on one of her friendly days. In my other life as a casting director she was my assistant for four or five years, so it’s been fun working with her on this.”
Rounding out the cast are regional stage veteran Paul Cowhig as valet Fred, and relative newcomer Dianna Gola-Harvey as housekeeper Miss Erikson.
“Dianna is giving it her best Swedish accent, and Paul is all ‘nudge-nudge’ Cockney. It’s really nice that the servants in this show have been given these little back-stories of their own – they’re not just dusting and serving food,” de Pencier said.
Evening performances of Present Laughter are at 8 pm, Wednesday through Saturday, with Sunday matinees at 2:30 pm. There will be a gala opening night April 5.
Tickets ($19-$22, $10 on Wednesdays) are available at the box office (604-536-7535) or at www.whiterockplayers.ca