The Wednesday Play: Noël Coward’s Present Laughter (1981)

Continuing on from our previous Wednesday Play, we have another Noël Coward comedy – Present Laughter. A semi-autobiographical work that heteronormalised many of the relationships in Coward’s life, it was first staged in 1942 and follows a few days in the life of light comedy actor Gary Essendine (then played by Coward) as he prepares to tour Africa. Along the way, Garry has to deal with women who want to seduce him, placate his long-suffering secretary and his estranged wife, cope with a crazed young playwright, and overcome his mid-life crisis.

There are, of course, many ways to film the play and in 1981, the BBC took the most literal route possible, filming Alan Strachan’s production at the Vaudeville Theatre in London. Starring Donald Sinden as Essendine, as well as Dinah Sheridan, Gwen Watford and Elizabeth Counsell, it also gave a young Belinda Lang (Dear John, 2point4 Children, Alleyn Mysteries, Second Thoughts, Bust, The Bretts) one of her earliest roles as a groupie of Essendine and featured as the crazed young playwright a certain Julian Fellowes, who would of course go on to become a playwright in real-life and eventually give us that little heard of series Downton Abbey. I’m not completely convinced the initial scenes of the actors arriving at the theatre are 100% genuine, but YMMV.