I’m open to going to see all sorts of theatre but I’ve never been much of a Noel Coward fan. His plays have never particularly struck a chord with me, perhaps due to the archetypical Englishness, the veneer of sophistication, the stylised repartee with just a hint of misogyny unsurprising in a play written in 1943. But I’m always prepared to take another look, so I went to see Present Laughter when it was streamed to cinemas. It was a breath of fresh air.
The director Matthew Warchus brought the play up to date by making the central character, flamboyant actor Garry Essendine, played by Andrew Scott, bisexual and by swapping a few the genders of the original characters. The original predatory female, Joanna, becomes Joe, an incorrigible cad whose presence threatens Garry’s little clique of chums.
The performance of each character is spectacular, as is the timing and rapport: there wasn’t a weak link in a very accomplished production, but Andrew Scott is central to the success. His dynamic performance of contrasts, pouting and peacocking and throwing tantrums is directed in order to amuse and entertain. As a successful actor, Garry Essendine is adored by clamouring fans on all sides and subsequently he is vain, charismatic and extremely lonely. But it is a play that makes an audience laugh out loud and then stop to consider moments of tenderness and poignancy. Beneath the comic surface is a play that deals with an individual who feels lost and alone despite being surrounded by sycophantic acolytes.
The result is hilarious comedy and powerful commentary. Indira Varma is excellent as Garry’s separated wife Liz, the one who watches from a distance, understands and deals with any crisis. Similarly, as Garry’s secretary Monica, Sophie Thompson creates an impactful character on stage, as does Joshua Hill as his overconfident valet Fred. Garry employs and exploits these characters, he abuses them verbally and he is lost without their support.
Andrew Scott is energetic and inspired. I saw him last as Hamlet and, on that occasion, I was bowled over by the intelligence, subtlety and depth of emotion. His role in Present Laughter is an equally impressive virtuoso performance. For me, the directing was exactly right. We have to laugh with the hilarious frenzy of Garry’s cavorting histrionics; we celebrate his highs in order to understand his lows. As a successful actor, Garry is incapable of doing anything other than acting constantly and, when we glimpse the man behind the superficial show, he is exposed and fragile.
Present Laughter is an entertaining play and stands up well as a memorable evening at the theatre; it is well-worth visiting. But it leaves the viewer with more than a just a smile. The characters are superficial stereotypes but there are also poignant moments that hit home, as we consider the fragility behind the charm. A brilliant production.