Present Laughter (Old Vic Theatre) – Review – Live Cinema Screening
By Eve Luddington, November 2019
Noel Coward’s twinkling send-up of himself, Present Laughter, first seen in 1943, is directed by Matthew Warchus, formerly an Associate Director of West Yorkshire Playhouse, in this stonkingly good production from London’s Old Vic Theatre: it’s a very funny and sometimes deeply poignant take on the cult of celebrity.
The action takes place in the sitting room of matinee idol, Garry Essendine, as he prepares for an acting tour of Africa. Rob Howell’s set is a stylish art deco affair with purple walls and plenty of space for the farcical shenanigans of the characters, somehow a small world in itself.
Not for nothing is Essendine an anagram of Neediness. The character’s a feted, insecure actor, so adored by his fans that he feels he has to perform all the time. He’s cocooned from the real world by his ‘family’ of staff, theatrical collaborators and the ex-wife whom he’s never actually divorced. They know him behind closed doors. Sometimes, they pander to his preening vanity and his tantrums; sometimes they’re devastatingly cutting in their criticism. Almost always, they protect him from the worst effects of his outrageous behaviour. Ultimately, the family rule Essendine’s life but they’re entirely dependent on him too, for their emotional life and their finances.
At 40, Garry deals with his dread of ageing and its consequences by seeking one new experience, often sexual, after another. In a fresh take on Coward’s original, director Matthew Warchus has swapped the genders of one couple counted as family so that he has a fling with Joe Lyppiatt, instead of Joanna. Noel Coward, though widely supposed to be a closet gay or bisexual, could never have written so overtly about homosexual sex – it was illegal until a few years before he died.
“Always on the edge”
So, in this household, it’s common for some fawning woman or man to ‘sleep in the spare room’ after ‘losing their latch key’. Like so many celebrity fans, each one believes he knows the ‘real’ man beneath the facade but Essendine, who’s declared undying love to them the night before, is desperate to dispatch them in the morning.
Andrew Scott (recently acclaimed as the sexy priest in TV’s Fleabag), takes on the exhausting lead role, played by Coward himself in the first production. He gives an unforgettable performance, glorying in the quicksilver nature of a character so consumed by his public image that he’s never at home in his own skin. He’s volatile and ever-restless.
Scott’s every gesture and facial expression, each of his vocal inflections and eye-rolls, expresses Essendine’s outsize, fleeting emotions. He’s always on the edge of loud hysteria, a man trapped by his acting persona and running to stand still. In one memorable scene, he hides an aspiring actress behind one door and an obsessed playwright behind another, then spins in circles before facing the next crisis. Joe Lyppiat, his male seducer, eventually ‘feels as if he’s in a French farce,’ and so does the audience at times. But, while the character is ‘sick to death of it’, we can’t get enough.
Such is Essendine’s charisma that almost all the characters declare on the night before he leaves for Africa, that they’ve arranged to accompany him there, despite the anguish and chaos he’s caused. His secretary, Monica Reed, is a notable exception. She’s the sensible, scathing woman who saves her boss from danger and berates him with caustic home-truths; probably the person he most needs in his life and certainly the only friend he wants on his tour. Monica is in love with him, like everyone else, but she’s probably kept her position as secretary for 17 years by never declaring it. Wisely, she preserves her sanity with emotional boundaries.
Sophie Thomson is outstanding in this role, playing it with great energy, a rollicking Scots accent and swooping intonation, which are delights in themselves. But her gentle dismissal of her boss’s advances, against her real wishes, is one of the most poignant moments in the play.
There are other cracking performances too. Indira Varma, as ex-wife Liz, offsets the frenzy around her with still poses and meaningful stares. Luke Thallon is pitifully funny as a hapless young playwright so obsessed with his hero that he comes bouncing back for more offence even after he’s been spurned and his writing damned.
Though Scott is undoubtedly the star of the production as Essendine is in the world of the play, it’s an ensemble production and needs to be for a play which demands immaculate timing and cast rapport to effectively produce farcical mayhem. It communicates Coward’s sparkling language brilliantly, and highlights the truths it tells about the cult of celebrity. There’s a lot of truth-telling in this play.
While I was glad to see homosexuality included in Present Laughter because it seemed faithful to Coward if not his writing, two elements jarred with me. One was that an elderly character was presented attached to a drip in a wheelchair. That was distracting, had no textual relevance and seemed unnecessary. The other was the choice of scene-change music. Songs from the 1970s and 80s, however pertinent to the themes of the play (for example, Carole King’s ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?’), were conspicuously anachronistic. We don’t need to be reminded of the play’s relevance to our times when it’s hard to avoid the celebrity culture in 2019.
Those quibbles aside, Matthew Warchus’s production offers three hours of brilliant physical and verbal comedy. It also reveals the poignancy that lurks just beneath the play’s surface but isn’t always brought out: Essendine’s celebrity and narcissism make him a lonely man. After one particularly frenetic scene, he’s left alone. We see a fleeting glimpse of someone completely at a loss with himself, before he picks up the phone to re-engage with his world.
To accentuate the sadness at the heart of Essendine’s life, and presumably Warchus’s feeling about Noel Coward’s, this production turns the original, happy ending on its head.
In the last moments of the original script, Essendine’s wife tells him that she’s not only coming with him to Africa but is also returning to him as a spouse; Essendine is quietly delighted and, for once, at peace: the couple tiptoe off together. In this production, Essendine is quietly despairing when he hears what she says. We, the audience, realise that this man’s life and sexual leaning will never be his own. Perhaps this is a more plausible ending than Coward’s. Certainly, it gives us pause for thought.
It was good to see lots of people at Wakefield Cineworld for this recording of a live performance and lovely that the audience included a large group of young ‘uns. I sensed that we all came out happily exhausted by this emotional roller-coaster, written by one of the UK’s wittiest and most prolific playwrights, sadly under-performed today.