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Highs and lows of theatricals

The theme of Pitlochry Festival Theatre's 2013 summer season is celebrity, and there are few dramatists, if any, who had more experience of the phenomenon in the 1920s and 1930s than Noël Coward.

His 1939 play, Present Laughter, offered audiences a peek into the world of matinee idol Garry Essendine, a pampered poodle of a man whose decadently luxurious lifestyle was matched only by his immense ego and his equally enormous capacity for self-dramatisation.

In 1942, when it was first staged, this five-door farce must have seemed an hilarious distraction from the travails of war. Today, Essendine appears to be almost well-grounded and proletarian compared with the current generation of tantrum-prone, mind-bogglingly rich pop stars, supermodels and top-tier footballers.

The Pitlochry version of the play is set in Essendine's palatial home (splendidly designed in a consciously clashing combination of art deco and garish neo-classicism by Frances Collier) during a 1930s' summer. As ever in the actor's life, beautiful young women have a habit of "losing" their latch keys, while Essendine has a habit of gallantly offering them his spare room.

The ensuing comedy sees the celebrity thespian caught between lovestruck teenager Daphne, his business-minded ex-wife Liz, scheming seductress (and manager's wife) Joanna, and a very odd, obsessive wannabe playwright Roland (who has, in Joseph Mann's spectacularly eccentric performance, more than a touch of Boris Johnson about him).

John Durnin's beautifully paced production is tremendously good fun. Mark Elstob is an absolute delight as Essendine (Coward's quasi-autobiographical send-up). He leads a generally fine cast, although there is no discernible reason why Simon Donaldson has to play the actor's valet, Fred, as a Cockney stereotype so outrageous that he stands out like Nick Griffin at a bar mitzvah.

Indeed, Donaldson's at it again in Alan Ayckbourn's 1984 amateur operatic comedy A Chorus Of Disapproval (which is like a less subtle and well-structured version of Michael Frayn's 1982 metatheatrical farce Noises Off). That Donaldson's character, light operatic society member Ian, is an insatiable swinger is clear enough without him swaggering about like a sex-obsessed John Wayne with haemorrhoids.

Not that a more nuanced performance would help matters much. From the outset Carl Patrick – as the society's director, combustible Welshman Dafydd ap Llewellyn – is so highly strung that he has precious little room for manoeuvre when his ill-fated staging of The Beggar's Opera really begins to hit the buffers. Like Coward, Ayckbourn's brand of assiduously middlebrow entertainment invites a certain amount of overacting, but Richard Baron's production has more than its fair share.

However, as the caricatures (from a surly barmaid to amateur opera newbie and unlikely sexual athlete Guy "it's the quiet ones you have to watch" Jones), abound, Irene Allan bravely squeezes a ton of pathos out of her character, Dafydd's long-suffering wife Hannah. Designer Frances Collier (again) nails the small town hall and pub, and musical director Jon Beales does a professionally unobtrusive job of building a musical within a pastiche musical.

While I admire Ayckbourn for his support of young playwrights and directors, I have long considered him to be the most overrated of playwrights. This aptly named, decidedly laboured comedy does nothing to alter my opinion.

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