Theatre Review: Present Laughter (The Old Vic, London) ★★★★★

Andrew Scott. Photo by Manuel Harlan
Andrew Scott. Photo by Manuel Harlan

Andrew Scott is bringing that Hot-Priest-Energy from Fleabag into this slick and satisfying revival of Noël Coward’s Present Laughter, that gender-flips a key role, making this a polysexual farce that feels more in keeping with Coward’s real life.

Scott brings a childish bravado (and a great pair of guns, he’s been hitting the gym) to the pampered actor Gary Essendine. Indira Varma (Game of Thrones) plays his not-quite-ex-wife, Liz, helping everyone navigate Gary’s moods and diary with the help of Monica (Sophie Thompson) his droll secretary. When Gary’s business partner Morris has an affair with the debonair Joe (who happens to be married to Gary’s producer Helen), things turn farcical.

Andrew Scott and Indira Varma. Photo by Manuel Harlan
Andrew Scott and Indira Varma. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

By gender flipping the original object of attraction Joanna into Joe, director Matthew Warchus has unlocked the queerness inherant in Coward’s play. Turning Helen into an apparent lesbian and playing up the sexual infatuation of Roland (an over-zealous fan played to perfection by Luke Thallon – most recently seen in The Inheritance) smooths out the rough edges, and turns up the heat on this bedroom farce.

Andrew Scott. Photo by Manuel Harlan
Andrew Scott. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

And it’s hilariously funny. It’s been years since I’ve heard The Old Vic erupt in so much laughter. The script takes endless shots at actors and those who spend time with them. The cast also does a brilliant job of bringing layers of character to the fore. Scott’s Essendine is both vapid and genuinely overworked and stressed. His flippant nature covers up a richer person.

Everything is amplified by Rob Howell’s oversized, art-deco set that gives a seemingly endless number of doors for people to be shoved into and slammed. The cast lounge and luxuriate in (and later frantically run around) the expansive salon, it’s both stunning and deeply impractical like Essedine himself.

Present Laughter at The Old Vic. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

It comes as no surprise that Andrew Scott excels here. Nine years ago he starred in Coward’s Design for Living at The Old Vic to rave reviews and since then his star has continued to rise with Sherlock, Pride (also directed by Warchus), Spectre and most recently Fleabag. This feels like a star at his peak. Essedine’s epic rants have all the emotional range and energy of watching a great actor tackle one of the classic Shakespearian monologues.

It’s a rare thing these days to watch a production without a bad note but here each performer seems so thoroughly on point and engaged there is no weak link. They say laughter is the best medicine, and Present Laughter is a fine tonic to the toxic state of the world outside.

Present Laughter runs at The Old Vic until 10th August 2019 and will be broadcast worldwide via NTLive on 28th November in the UK (international dates may vary). There will be a post-show talk, Andrew Scott In Conversation, on 25th July 2019.

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