Andrew Scott is a great actor. But then you knew that, right? And it’s because of him that Matthew Warchus’s production of NoÃ«l Coward’s Present Laughter stops feeling like a play on the outdated side and instead becomes interesting. He’s like the actor equivalent of a school teacher able to make the most boring lesson on photosynthesis seems fascinating. The attention-grabber when you didn’t realise you had any attention left to grab.
Coward’s play is about Garry Essendine, an actor loved, managed, worshipped and commoditised by a whole team – ‘the firm’ – of producers, secretaries, housekeepers and various hangers-on, including an obsessive and unwelcome fan from end-of-the-line Uckfield who wants Garry to perform in serious plays. As my husband once pointed out, theatre people (like me) love theatre about theatre (egoists that we are), and Present Laughter is a script that’s filled with funny and accurate references to The Theatre and the ridiculous institution it is. Coward wrote it in 1939, but most of its points remain awkwardly relevant to today, or, relevant or not, show that we’re still having the same circuitous debates about serious theatre vs entertainment and still going: ‘Oh God! Not PEER GYNT!’ whenever Ibsen’s epic gets a mention.
Warchus’s staging reminds audiences how the play was originally called ‘Sweet Sorrow’ (by which I mean: it’s emblazoned across the front of the programme). Its existing title is, however, taken from a Twelfth Night quote, which feels much more fitting than a reference to Romeo and Juliet. Warchus’s production has a lot in common tonally with one of the more bittersweet Shakespeare comedies. Overwhelmingly, it’s funny – very much so in this performance – but there are brief, flitting moments of sadness and loneliness. It’s not Coward’s most acerbic or acute blend of comedy and seriousness; his multiple one-act plays are much more interesting for how they nail the hypocrisies of the English upper-middle classes, their obsession with money and vicious colonialist tendencies. But it is a fairly evergreen picture of ageing charisma and careerdom.
The main change Warchus makes to the original is switching one of Garry’s lovers, Joanna, to Joe. It gets rids of the otherwise uncomfortable storyline of an forty-something male stage star having a string of affairs with much younger female devotees, because Enzo Cilenti’s Joe Lyppiatt is around the same age as the actor and, if anything, seems more in control of events than Garry. Apart from that, it’s a fairly traditional staging on a sweeping, static art deco set designed by Rob Howell. There’s a disco ball, a load of shiny balloons, brief blasts of ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ and some nice performances by members of the supporting cast – Liza Sadovy as Miss Erikson, a Swiss spiritualist who looks like an extra from Scooby Doo, in particular.
In common with Max Webster’s Fanny & Alexander at the Old Vic, this fairly fun and frivolous exterior isn’t put there unthinkingly. Both, in their own ways, are hymns to performance, entertainment, expression and enjoying life. In Fanny and Alexander, the resistance to this is put up by Puritanical doctrine preached by the children’s new stepfather. In Present Laughter, it’s voiced by Garry’s superfan from Uckfield who originally wants him to stop doing commercial theatre and turn his talents to something more studious. It’s also, in this staging, seen in the unspoken force of the outside world and its opposition to Garry’s bisexuality. In this light, Garry’s small world, and the space it gives him to behave how he wants to, gains huge significance, and the laughter that fills it something defiant.
Present Laughter is on at the Old Vic until 10th August. Tickets and more info here.