The Old Vic, London – until 10 August 2019
Noël Coward would have thoroughly approved of Andrew Scott’s gloriously outrageous turn as ageing matinée idol, Garry Essendine, in The Old Vic’s reinvention of Present Laughter.
Scott, aided by director Matthew Warchus, has not only breathed new life into this hoary old chestnut, but the team has created a revitalised and hysterically funny comedy without drifting too far from Coward’s original work. But, despite all the laughter, there is a tragic seam running through to Coward’s soufflé wit. How do celebrities cope when they’re no longer in the spotlight? Its moments, few they may be, of quiet introspection, are revelatory, impeccably delivered and stop the guffaws in their tracks.
For most of Present Laughter we are faced with a petulant, sexually ambiguous, vainglorious and actorly thesp, who flounces around Rob Howell’s gorgeous Art-Deco set, playing Queen Bee to a retinue of hangers-on. But Essendine always protests too much. Here is a Pan who is terrified of growing older and is frightened of losing that free and youthful spirit which has shaped his glittering life to date.
He’s a spoilt little boy whose whole life is a never-ending performance and who always expects to get what he wants. When he is rebuffed, Garry throws a tantrum of gargantuan proportions. But Coward’s comedy is more than a story about one man’s mid-life crisis, it also reveals the downside of fame with its crazed fans and stalkers, and loss of privacy.
Warchus has tinkered with the work to make it much more mischievous but, surprisingly, it feels entirely in keeping with the plot and characters. Coward wrote Essendine as a big, bravura part for himself. Scott, menacing as Moriarty in BBC’s Sherlock, surprised everyone as an unexpectedly sexy Priest in Fleabag. Here he demonstrates his versatility with his own bravura performance in a comedy role and it is a triumph.
Garry Essendine is a true theatrical cliché in ways that Coward could never have openly got away with when it first premiered in the 1940s. He has a very understanding, estranged wife, and the openly bisexual and mannered actor also has a voracious appetite for sex.
The show opens with a delightful young thing called Daphne asleep on Essendine’s couch. She’s a fan he picked up at a party and he brought her home because she had “forgotten her latchkey”. “She’s a darling,” says Garry to his long-suffering (and clearly devoted) secretary, Monica. “I’m mad about her. What did you say her name was?” Garry smoothly sends Daphne on her way but soon we’re exposed to the insanity that surrounds the rich and famous.
The always excellent Sophie Thompson is uproariously funny as the cynical Monica who acts like Garry’s mother but gives the game away about her true feelings with just one brief, final, look.
Monica’s attempts to bring order to Garry’s life look like floundering after he learns that his manager, Morris, is having an affair with Joe, the husband of his producer.
The situation is further complicated when Joe admits that he is in love with Garry…and all this on the eve of Garry’s theatre tour to Africa.
There are times when this whirlwind scenario descends into farce and it’s all the funnier for it yet Warchus’s production is occasionally uneven.
The comedy moments hit their mark but the more serious scenes, including Joe’s seduction scene with Garry, feel flat. His eclectic choice of music between scenes and the brief use of a glitterball, also over-egg this generally outstanding production.
The entire ensemble turn in topping performances, from Liza Sadovy as the bizarre Swedish housekeeper, Miss Erikson, and Joshua Hill as the cocky manservant, Fred, to Indira Varma’s disenchanted wife, Liz.
But this is very much Andrew Scott’s play despite the hilarious Luke Thallon upstaging him with a splendid cameo as obsessed fan and writer, Roland Maule.
Compulsively funny, this Present Laughter is a joy from start to finish.
Present Laughter runs at The Old Vic theatre until August 10.
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