Narcissism in a time of war

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A few months ago Howard Davies directed a superb production of Gorky’s Philistines here, achieving a feverish, melancholy mood that brilliantly suggested a society in flux. Now he tackles another moment of change, but in a very different play and with more mixed results. Noël Coward’s comedy was written in 1939 and Davies finds in its depiction of Garry Essendine, a fabulously vain matinee idol who is losing his touch, a presentiment of greater change. Essendine’s hair may be receding, but so is his world. And Coward, perhaps a little like Gorky and Chekhov, seems ambivalent about his characters: the comedy arises from their ghastly self-absorption and from Essendine’s rampant narcissism, but from beneath the comedy seeps a rueful, slightly elegiac air. Davies reminds us of the play’s timing by playing wartime announcements between acts.

All well and good, yet the execution is uncomfortable and heavy-handed. Tim Hatley’s elaborate, aquamarine design for Essendine’s apartment is too insistently grand. The opening scenes move ponderously, with the cast handling Coward’s cut-glass dialogue with extreme care and hammering home some of the comedy. Rather than bubble along, the action feels weighed down and slows to walking pace in places, reminding us that the play could do with a trim. There is a niggling sense that Davies wants the play to achieve more than it can, which has the reverse effect.

But his staging does come into its own in a wonderful performance from Alex Jennings as Essendine. He breezes about the stage in a bubble of self-importance, chucking out his gullible female conquests along with last night’s cigarette butts. He has to be both appalling and charming. Yet Jennings finds something else: a deep vein of insecurity and self-loathing and, finally, a sudden resolve to tell the uncomfortable truth.

Jennings is superb, leaping on to the piano to admire the cut of a new dressing gown, cleaning his teeth with the soda syphon. But his final showdown with his entourage reveals acid cruelty, brute honesty and a deep weariness with frivolity. And he is flanked by two excellent performances from Sarah Woodward as his tart, all-knowing secretary and Sara Stewart, as his shrewd, poised wife, who finally reels in her man and, taking him away, shuts the door on an era.

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