Present Laughter at the Old Vic: Gorgeous Set, Hilarious Writing and Stellar Performances
‘I remember now. She’s a darling. I’m mad about her. What did you say her name was?’ So says Garry Essendine (Andrew Scott), dressed as a pirate, of Daphne Stillington (Kitty Archer), a young woman dressed as a fairy. At the opening of Noël Coward’s Present Laughter, the two have spent a night of drunken passion together that, one feels, is particularly un-Disney.
Garry, an actor just in his forties but beloved by thousands for the past twenty years, is the master (apparently) of light comedies. His hedonistic lifestyle has become a routine: his cleaner simply hoovers around the sleeping lovers and the spare room becomes a holding cell for them as business meetings occur in the living room, where the play takes place. Performances of Shelley are also commonplace.
Rob Howell’s art deco set is glorious. Doors leading to Garry’s bedroom, an office, a kitchen and the second room not dissimilar to baroque drama allows for numerous fast-paced entrances and exits. Furthermore, most of them are bizarre and charged with a bacchic energy: an ‘Exit pursued by a bear’ isn’t to be found here, but Garry’s predatory powers never feel far away.
Simple moments of mirroring suggest Gary’s unexplainable behaviour is routine. Dressed as a fairy, Daphne (Kitty Archer) pulls on a green pair of tights that are found lying around the room at the beginning of the play, whilst, sitting in the same spot at the beginning of act two, Joe likewise puts on his socks after his own evening of forgetting his latch key.
This fast pace is all the more impressive given the piece’s relative lack of plot. The vapid life of Gerry and showbusiness occupies the plot, which takes a little bit of explaining. Gerry was married to Liz (Indira Varma), who is now his sort of manager. Liz is concerned for her friend Helen (Suzie Toase) whose husband, Morris (Abdul Salis) she believes is having an affair with Joe (Enzo Cilenti), a gender-swapped character. Enter also Daphne, the young writer Roland (Luke Thallon) and Monica (Sophie Thompson), Gerry’s assistant, and it’s all rather muddled, but in a good way.
Whilst I hate the word ‘luvvie’, there are fewer words that might capture this eclectic, angry, insatiable, caring, confused and bewildering group of people. Indeed, even when insults fly Gerry observes ‘I won’t hear a word against the Albert Hall.’ And that’s just the beginning, darling.
Scott, who enters the second half as if ready not to face the blistering effects his choices have on those surrounding him but instead for a game of golf, is truly sublime throughout the show. When accused of over-acting, he slaps his face. When he shakes the overeager (and, it would be fair to presume, sweaty) Roland’s hand, he dips it into a glass jug of water. No moment is left where Scott doesn’t manage to pull some irony, comedy or pathos from his character.
At points the characters are not quite sure when Scott’s Gerry is acting or not, and as an audience member I have to agree. Scott does not allow a moment for the character to slip – always we are questioning if we are seeing the real Gerry or if it is, as might be expected, another character. Fawning and preening and charismatic, Scott is brilliant.
Yet a leading man is nothing without his supporting cast, and that’s very true here. Varma is graceful and strong and Luke Thallon’s nervous energy amazingly worked well with the neurosis of the rest of the cast. Thompson brings a maternal focus to the play, though her rather unwieldly accent, an attempt I presume at an acidic Maggie Smith, was bizarre. Cilenti would have also benefitted from not being quite so subtle in his performance: this is a show about exaggeration, and so when something doesn’t match this his performance can be at little bland.
But Present Laughter is hilarious. Matthew Warchus’ direction has prompted a superbly funny evening tinged with an unexpressable sadness. ‘There’s something sad in happiness’ Gerry observes at the beginning of the play, and this is certainly found at the end of the play once the farce has been tripped away to reveal true emotion. The decision to gender-swap the role of Joe adds a further complexity to Gerry’s sexuality that rather neatly adds further layers of complexity onto him as a character.
Coward’s comedy feels loose but it is obviously tightly woven. The trope of the lost latch key or the threat of Gerry playing Peer Gynt (all the more funny given the National Theatre’s upcoming adaptation) quickly become recurring jokes throughout. This, added with Howell’s design, Warchus’ direction, and Scott’s performance mean that laughter is always present.
Present Laughter is at the Old Vic until 10th August, 2019.
Photograph credit Manuel Harlan.