Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

The Bright Young Thing Still Sparkles

Noel Coward's wit lives on in the Gate's revival of 'Present Laughter'

Present Laughter is the closest one gets to autobiography in Noel Coward's plays -- though he did write two autobiographies as well, and countless comments about himself throughout his huge literary output -- yet in Garry Essendine, the hero of the play, he does come close to his own personality. The fact was emphasised when the play was eventually put on in London after a gruelling post-war tour of 28 weeks around Britain. This was at the Haymarket Theatre, in London, in April 1947.

But the journey to the Haymarket had been long and rocky. The play had been in rehearsal when war was declared on September 3, 1939. For the next six years, Coward was entertaining troops, travelling throughout Britain and in the Middle East, and dreaming of a time "when the silver lining will show through, the clouds will bugger off, the light of victory will illuminate out ageing faces, the Slough of Despond will be left behind, peace will reign again in this tortured world".

Essendine, the hero of Present Laughter, is played by Stephen Brennan, in the Gate production, a classic piece of Gate casting. It adds to the recent spate of period pieces, from an era that senior citizens remember, stretching from Somerset Maugham to Terence Rattigan. One could almost say that these plays have been inspired by Brennan.

Behind the crisp, yet frothy, comedy of which Coward is such a master there was a realist who could be quite sharp in standing on matters of principle, in his writing, that indicate a carefully thought confrontation with sentimentality. One example will suffice, from this play, and it comes near the time when Essendine is confronted by the husband of a woman in the play called Joanna, who asks him whether or not he has had an affair with her. Essendine says: "Yes, I have".

David Niven, who played the part in one production, wrote to Coward on both this, and another issue, asking him to moderate the shock -- as it was then -- of an attractive character being undermined by such an admission. Coward refused, favouring the truth. Having read, with great pleasure, some of the sparkling dialogue, I look forward with great pleasure to the full account of the play next Tuesday.

Noel Coward was a lively part of the world of 'Bright Young Things', and catered for the new theatrical taste in the 1920s and 1930s. He was a friend of Cecil Beaton, Oliver Messel, Stephen Tennant and many others. And it was at that time, in 1933, that Coward met Derek Hill, the painter, and became a friend.

It was an unlikely friendship. Coward was pretty acerbic about music and was not, at that stage, a painter. He made the apt comment about how extraordinary it was "how potent cheap music is". And he made a comment about opera that has depths of observation in it: "People are wrong when they say opera is not what it used to be. It is what it used to be. That is what's wrong with it."

The first of these judgments might have endeared Derek Hill to him; the second certainly not. Hill was fanatical in his love of opera. But the friendship was strengthened. Coward bought paintings from Derek's shows, attending his Leicester Galleries exhibition in 1947 and recorded in his diary: "Lunch with Derek Hill in Hampstead. Saw all his new pictures; very, very good."

They had one unfortunate encounter. This was in Italy when Derek Hill was living in a small villa in Fiesole, above Florence, and painting. Coward stayed there. He wrote in his diary: "Beautiful but cold. Went to Derek's dear little house which is a dear little ice-house and very horrid indeed. It was pitch dark."

One night was enough. Coward was not well anyway. There was no hot water. The bathroom was like a refrigerator. Even the visit across the valley to see I Tatti did little to restore any feelings at all in Coward, who referred to "famous Madonnas simpering in gold leaf". He realised he should never have come to Florence; not wanting to catch pneumonia, he told Derek, he would move immediately to the Hotel Excelsior. Derek, Coward recorded, was "very sweet" about it. "I packed like lightning and was out of that beastly little ice-box for ever."

But the two men met for dinner the following evening after Coward had spent the day marching around Florence. He warned Derek that a young painter trying to paint in Florence would be like someone "sitting down in Rumpelmeyers to make fudge". Rumpelmeyers was a famous cake and coffee shop.

Coward took up painting, possibly at Derek Hill's insistence, around the 1950s and mastered it in a somewhat creole-like style, suited to Jamaica where he went to live.

Though he loved to paint, he was actually allergic to oil paints and always wore gloves.

Coward introduced Hill to many people, among them Clementine Beit, who was a Mitford, and had been Unity Mitford's contemporary at St Margaret's School.

Some of the Bright Young Things became less bright, but this can never be said of Noel Coward. The sparkle never ended. Some of his performances in film have been immensely successful, if at times rather bizarre.

His last words were "Good night my darlings, I'll see you in the morning."