Noël Coward’s sparkling semi-autobiographical comedy Present Laughter will be joining us later this month. We speak to one of its stars, Phyllis Logan, who’s probably best known for her role as Mrs Hughes in Downton Abbey. Here, she’s playing Monica, the long-suffering secretary to actor Garry Essendine (Samuel West).
How would you sum up the character of Monica Reed in Present Laughter?
She’s a long-standing and long-suffering secretary to Garry Essendine, who is being played by Samuel West. She’s got a fairly ready wit and is quite acerbic so she’s a good foil for him with his shenanigans and his egomania.
Have you performed in the play before?
No, I haven’t. I have done a Noël Coward before but that was about 100 years ago in rep when I was far too young to be in Fallen Angels but, even though I was still only in my 20s and ought to have been older, we made a fairly decent fist of it I would say.
And have you worked with Samuel West before?
No I haven’t so it’s really lovely getting to work with him. The only person in the cast I’ve worked with before is Zoe Boyle [Joanna], who played Lavinia on Downton Abbey.
What are the joys for you as an actress when it comes to Noël Coward’s sublime writing?
He’s just a master of his art and it’s great to churn out those fantastic words and swan about in beautiful costumes. It’s a bit scary, mind you, getting back to the theatre. It’s been a long time since I’ve done it.
Why do you think Coward’s work in general, and this play which was written in 1939 and premiered in 1942 in particular, has endured?
I suppose good writing always perseveres, doesn’t it? It’s a very witty play and people love going back in time. My husband [Kevin McNally] has being doing a lot of remakes of Tony Hancock scripts for the radio and he’s just done one for TV. They were written in the 50s and they’re still as fresh and as funny and as relevant today. I think the same applies to Noël Coward. He’s very fresh and very witty and he’s got all these great characters and it’s lovely to reintroduce them to the modern-day public.
What is it about the era in which the play is set that appeals to people?
Well, even though it was written in 1939, there was no mention made of the world-shattering events of that time. They were completely ignored but of course the play isn’t a social comment on the world. It’s a bit like P.G. Wodehouse. Coward has created his own world peopled with all these eccentric characters and people seem to crave simpler times. It wasn’t that simple then, certainly not in 1939, but prior to that in the 30s I suppose to some degree it was more straightforward and simpler. People like to hark back to that.
Are there any big challenges for you in doing this play?
Just being back in the theatre is a challenge in itself, as is touring. I don’t know when I last did that. [Laughs] I’m getting too old for this malarkey. It’s been decades since I did a touring production.
How is it returning to the stage after doing six series as Mrs Hughes on Downton Abbey?It’s so nice to do something that’s really quite different and I’m pleased about that, not that I resent Mrs Hughes at all. She served me very well, but it’s nice to move on to something else.
Monica is a secretary. Have you ever done the job for real or do you think you could?
Funnily enough I did shorthand and typing at school for one of my O-levels. I don’t know what I thought I was going to do with it, but once upon a time I could have played a proper secretary doing Pitman shorthand but of course I’ve forgotten all that now.
What’s the one thing you have to have on tour with you? Decent teabags maybe?
I haven’t thought about that yet as it’s been so long since I did it. It’s a bit like Desert Island Discs and I don’t know what my luxury is going to be. Finding good teabags generally applies when you’re in America but I think I’ll manage to source a decent teabag in Bath. But I definitely need my mobile phone and my little laptop so I can Skype with my husband.
Do you have any pre- and post-show rituals?
I don’t know about rituals but I like to get in in plenty of time in case the make-up goes pear-shaped and they have to start all over again. And after a show? Oh, it’s just a huge sigh of relief and a large glass of Gavi di Gavi.
What sort of reaction do you get from fans when they bump into you?
A lot of people still think of me as Lady Jane in Lovejoy and they say “We just loved you in Lovejoy” but of course I’m recognised for Downton Abbey too. I get letters from all over the world – from China, Australia, all over the States – from all the Downton fans.
You’ve had such a long and varied career. What have been the highlights?
I must say doing Lovejoy was great. We laughed like drains for the whole however many years it was. It’s the same with Downton Abbey. It sounds like an old cliché but we did become a bit of a family with the crew as well as the cast and it was a joy to go to work every day. It’s six years of your life and that’s quite a substantial percentage of one’s working life. Then there are things like Secrets & Lies with Mike Leigh. That was phenomenal because I’d never done a Mike Leigh film before and it was such an extraordinary working process that it was certainly a highlight. And also back in the early days when you didn’t know where your career was headed, just to be doing theatre and little tours and maybe picking up a telly job here and there – those were more innocent days. Those were the days before mobile phones when you actually wrote letters to one another, some of which I came across recently. We used to write endless letters. [Laughs] I don’t know where we found the time but we used to write screeds of letters to each other. I’ve got many a fond memory and I feel very fortunate to have so many good memories and positive feelings about the whole business.
And are there any jobs you’d rather forget?
[Laughs] There probably are but I’m not going to tell you that!