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Weekend Listening: Noel Coward's Present Laughter

Weekend Listening: Noel Coward's Present Laughter

Noel Coward

A BBC radio adaptation of Noel Coward's crisp, witty 1939 three-act farce, Present Laugher, is a perfect way to spend 90 minutes this weekend.


Writing in his diary in 1970 about Noel Cowards war time farce, Present Laughter, the acclaimed theater director, Peter Hall, said, "What a wonderful play it would be if--as Coward must have wanted--all those love affairs were about homosexuals." No-one has yet staged the play with men in the female roles, but someone should. In his own time, of course, Coward could not, although today's audiences would find the gay subtext rather obvious. As it happens there is a gay character in Present Lives--a young playwright, Roland Maule, who is obsessed by the central character, Garry Essendine, an egotistical middle-age actor who served as a lightly-disguised stand-in for Coward himself. Essendine spends most of the play fending off a string of women, as well as Maule, in a game of increasingly-complicated subterfuge. The character of Maule might have seemed bold in 1939, but the way in which he is dismissed by those around him as mad leaves a slightly bad taste today. Coward himself eventually left England, a country he described as "full of intolerance and bigotry," and died in Jamaica in 1973. Elaine Stritch once described him as "one of the saddest men I have ever known." As with many sad people, Coward could be very funny in his work, and Present Laughter zips along like the grandchild of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. This radio production by BBC Radio 4, available online through tomorrow, stars Samuel West (better known from PBS's Mr. Selfridge) as Essendine, and--in the role of Maule--the talented Freddie Fox, who will soon be seen in Logo's new gay series, Cucumber. You can stream the play on the BBC website here.

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