The Old Vic, London – until 10 August 2019
First of all let’s say that Andrew Scott is a marvel, a 21st century Ur-Coward hero, who manages to do it without either the matey crassness lately inflicted on the part by Rufus Hound, or that retro, clipped Cowardspeak which echoes the Master too much. When a chap can say “there’s something awfully sad about happiness” without reminding you of all those Round the Horne parodies, he’s winning. And Scott certainly does: windmilling or striking poses, he acts the compulsive theatricality of the spoilt matinee idol Garry Essendine while – with uncanny delicacy – revealing how much or how little of it is, at any given moment, fake and how much a genuine revelation of loneliness and panic. He’s superb. Every critic has said so.
So, late to the party after a holiday, I have a chance to add to rather than initiate notes on Matthew Warchus’ superb production of Coward’s self-revealing comedy. It is set in a gloriously deco studio living room which nicely echoes the curve of the Old Vic’s ceiling rose. It emphasises the close circle of Essendine, invaded by the “latch key loser” Daphne and the infuriating arty fan Maule. He can only exist, until he disrupts it himself, in a safe entourage of dryly resigned secretary (a broad, bonkers depiction by Sophie Thompson, who also manages at the end to give it a poignant edge), plus a brisk ex wife, raffish employees, manager Morris and, vitally, his producer Henry. The latter, in Warchus’ gender-flipped production, becomes Helen: thus the actor’s disruptive seduction by the producer’s partner is by a man, Joe.
Fair enough: it reminds us of how Coward’s own sexuality was encoded in his plays as straight, and a modern audience can watch a same-sex seduction with a shrug. The script is the same, from Joe’s challenge to Essendine’s always wavering sense of control right down to the final moments where they try to keep discussing the Queen’s Hall versus Hiawatha at the RAH. Yet this male duel gives the scene an even greater edge. Enzo Cilenti, though rather more low-rent gigolo than credible seducer, deploys masculine dominance not female allure, and his height and threatening moustache set off Essendine’s emotional fragility very nicely. Scott’s plaintive theatrical drawl wavers between temptation and panic.
So it works. And as the pace hots up, the farce is tremendous (Luke Thallon is a nicely horrifying Maule, and Liza Sadovy suitably bizarre as the spiritualist Swedish housekeeper before gamelly becoming a hypergeriatric Lady Saltburn wheeled in on a drip). Warchus also tweaks the end a little, but fair enough: within the production, with its edge of melancholy, it suits better.
box office oldvictheatre.com to 10 August