Embarrassingly, I had never seen a production of a Noël Coward play before Present Laughter. I had of course read some of his work, and heard of his undeniable wit and renowned flamboyance, but never seen any of his works performed. Present Laughter centres on comedic actor Gary Essendine (Andrew Scott), a character that Coward admitted is a caricature of himself. Self-obsessed, childish, painfully honest and so irresistibly charming that it truly is a curse, we watch as chaos unravels around Essendine in the run up to his big trip to Africa.
Present Laughter mostly follows Essendine and his separated-but-still-married wife Liz (Indira Varma), as they desperately try to protect their circle of close-knit friends, for whom Garry is the sun around which they revolve, by keeping sexy predatory newcomer Joe (Enzo Cilenti) from upsetting the applecart. I won’t ruin it for you, but let’s just say Garry ends up tossing over the whole applecart himself. Genders are swapped in Matthew Warchus’ production, having the knock-on effect of making most of the group’s sexuality ambiguous. I find this not only removes a dash of misogyny, but also enhances the bohemian spirit of the group, furthers Garry’s sweeping appeal, and brings the character closer to Coward’s reality.
Olivier-award winner Andrew Scott (yes, he is Fleabag’s Hot Priest and no I did not spend a substantial amount of time in the interval thinking about that) is obviously marvellous. He initially emerges dishevelled and hungover in a misbuttoned waistcoat and eye-patch, straight from J.M. Barrie’s Neverland – a lost boy. Despite later shining up like a new penny and waltzing around in Coward’s famous polka dot robe, he’s still a lost boy, just middle-aged and a bit rude. Scott plays Garry with incredible duality. He says and does such horrid things, but, like a terribly cute dog that’s chewed up one of your shoes while you were out, it really is impossible to stay angry with him – for the other characters and for us. Despite his bravado and exhausting need to be constantly “performing”, he truly is lonely. He wards off lovers with recitals of Shelley, but practically begs others to stay. His desire to keep people at arm’s length whilst simultaneously trying to keep himself consistently surrounded is properly upsetting.
I’ve always had little sympathy for celebrities who harp on about how difficult it is to be oh so famous. They chose it, didn’t they? It sounds like a nightmare, but still, they actively sought it out. Present Laughter might just have changed my mind. In an essay in the programme, comedian Russel Brand describes fame as “a trauma, a toxic elixir, a Tolkienesque ring, a pact”, and this is reflected in Essendine, in his obsession with himself, and how in all his acting, he seems to have lost sight of who that is.
Sophie Thompson is thankfully robust and maternal as Garry’s loyal, no-nonsense secretary. Luke Thallon gives aspiring playwright from Uckfield Roland Maule’s ceaseless obsession an impressive intensity, while Joshua Hill is unassuming and sincere as cockney valet Fred. Originally titled Sweet Sorrow, it isn’t hard to see why when in scenes together, Varma and Scott give us exactly that, as Liz and Garry navigate their profound and complicated love. He can’t seem to distinguish the difference between sorrow and joy anymore, and he tells lover Daphne (Kitty Archer) “there’s something awfully sad about happiness, isn’t there?”
Aside from being touching, beautifully staged, fantastically performed and well-observed, Present Laughter is just so, so funny. Sometimes I go to theatre and listen to the high-brow chortling and wonder what on earth people are laughing at – well, not with this. In 1959, when it was first staged in the West End without Coward, The Times said, “plays as funny as this are no longer being written in England.” I think that may still be true.
Present Laughter is playing The Old Vic until 10 August. For more information and tickets, visit The Old Vic website.