Sunday, May 27, 2012
Special to TorSun
24 MAY 2012
Pictured: Steven Sutcliffe, Claire Jullien
NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE — Noel Coward, playwright and bon vivant, often dismissed his prodigious creative gifts as simply “a talent to amuse” — and judging from a new production of one of his plays, his death, in 1973, did little to diminish that talent. In fact, the production of Coward’s 1942 play, PRESENT LAUGHTER, that launched a new season of the Shaw Festival on the Festival Stage Wednesday, is often amusing — at least when director David Schurmann puts his trust in the playwright and simply lets Coward work his magic as he spins a spoonful of plot into a towering comedic confection.
But welcome as they are, those occasions are too often overshadowed in a production that has its problems, not the least of which is the casting of Steven Sutcliffe in the pivotal role of leading man Garry Essendine, a larger-than-life actor the playwright freely admitted was patterned after himself. While the talented and self-effacing Sutcliffe has often proved himself an actor with whom to conjure, he comes up short here, successfully inhabiting the character of Essendine in every way, save the one that would bring him completely to life. In the final analysis, he lacks the ability to get outside himself and watch his performance with the same adoration that his audience watches it, and Essendine is in every way his own biggest fan.
Simply stated, Sutcliffe is an actor who works and works hard for his audience’s affection, while the role of Essendine demands an actor so confident of that affection that he will play with it instead. That said, Schurmann finds some nice stuff in an often elegant production, thanks to a cast the includes Shaw regulars like Gray Powell, Claire Jullien and Moya O’Connell, all following the example set by two of the Festival’s most enduring leading ladies — specifically Mary Haney and the venerable Jennifer Phipps, both of whom give ample demonstration here of the truth in the adage that there is no such thing as a small part. And while Julia Course, James Pendarves and Patrick McManus fail ultimately to impress, under Schurmann’s direction, they at least manage to make it through the production without slowing it down.
But, while Schurmann finds memorable things in this delightful stage confection, he too often seems to forsake both play and playwright, setting aside Coward’s elegant and charming tale of a leading man who sees the whole world as his stage in favour of a kind of self-absorbed buffoonery completely at odds with a playwright who elevated wit and elegance to a religion. One might, for instance, forgive Corrine Koslo’s heavy-handed attempts to steal scenes as Essendine’s housekeeper Miss Erikson. But when that kind of over-acting is coupled with the silly, childish rambunctiousness Jonathan Tan brings to his performance as pushy playwright Roland Maule, it adds up to such a surfeit of bad acting that the very fabric of the play is threatened.
On the plus side designers William Schmuck (sets and costumes) and Kevin Lamotte (lighting) do a bang-up job of creating an elegant London studio as setting for the unraveling of Essendine’s life — and if Schurmann fails to achieve the consistent light and elegant touch that would bring Coward’s work to life, he does at least manage on occasion to shed a bit more light on a great man’s enduring talent to amuse.