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.