Review - Present Laughter starring Andrew Scott at the Old Vic
The West End seems to be full of ‘weighty’ plays recently; serious plays like Rosmersholm, Bitter Wheat and Sweat, with serious messages, which is great. But the laughter which roared through the stalls at the Old Vic for most the duration of this hilarious Present Laughter is just so welcome. This production stars as a credit to the talent of both Noel Coward and its star Andrew Scott.
Okay. Let’s deal with this early: a magnetic Scott delivers again. As Garry Essendine, the egotistical actor facing a midlife crisis, he takes a slight detour from his trademark intensity and gives a comedic performance you cannot take your eyes off. Even when he isn’t centre stage, he’s there, ticking along with a slacked-jaw, or grimace, or wide eyes. He is always switched on, always reacting, never just listening.
While his comedy feels fresh, his roaring power explodes to the fore as Coward’s character becomes tangled in a web of adultery and promiscuity, and Essendine’s frustrations with those imposing on his life bubble throughout the play. There’s great satisfaction every time one of those bubbles pops.
Director Matthew Warchus’ production strips out a lot of the pomp and class from the play; Garry is a successful actor, but he isn’t portrayed as just a funny snob here. He’s actually pretty tragic. When he’s alone he hangs around the phone longing – sometimes literally begging - for company, and when it inevitably arrives, he can’t stand it.
What sets this production apart from its many counterparts is the special permission the Coward estate has given Warchus to employ some gender-swapping to the script: theatre producer Henry has become Helen, while his wife Joanna is now a man, Joe, presenting a queer plot twist to Essendine’s womanising character.
It seems relatively insignificant at first – almost as if it was done just for the sake of shaking the play up a bit – but as the pivotal scene progresses, it brings real gravity to Garry’s decision: fame has left him a desperately lonely man seeking comfort from the most unexpected of places. Scott and Enzo Cilenti (Joe) don’t quite have the chemistry to make it believable, but you can imagine Garry becoming adventurous.
There’s some terrific here support from Sophie Thompson as Monica, the secretary who keeps the actor’s life together and in check with some zinging one-liners. As devoted almost-ex-wife Liz, Indira Varma keeps the ship running, pushing people in an out of the ever-revolving doors of Rob Howell’s set.
While Bitter Wheat was set up to be the must-see play of the summer about sex and showbiz, it’s really being staged across the river at the Old Vic which has dusted off an 80-year-old play and given it an intriguing modern twist.
Present Laughter tickets are available now.
'But this is Andrew Scott’s show, and he gives a virtuoso performance. It’s a fascinatingly detailed interpretation of a character who’s flirtatious, stroppy and acerbic yet also drowning in melancholy. Scott achieves something genuinely audacious in making him both odious and adorable.'
Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard, ★★★★★
'Scott plays Gary Essedine, a spoilt, petulant actor who gluts himself on the sex and intimacy his fans offer, then sits soggily in the mess he’s created. And he’s frighteningly good at it.'
Alive Saville, Time Out, ★★★★★
'We knew – didn’t we - that Andrew Scott was very good indeed... But something remarkable has now happened at the Old Vic that will surely make even his expanding congregation of worshippers sit bolt upright in extra excitement – a revelatory performance that turns a good year into an annus mirabilis.'
Dominic Cavendish, The Telegraph, ★★★★★
'The word “heyday” could have been invented by Noël Coward and that is the word that sprang to mind as I watched Andrew Scott here. He does not so much play the part of the vainglorious actor Garry Essendine as grasp it around the waist and do a hot-to-trot tango with it. His panache fills the entire theatre. The part feels made for him and he knows it.'
Ann Treneman, The Times, ★★★★★