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Present Laughter Andrew Scott and Indira Varma in Present Laughter – a never-to-be-forgotten evening. Photo: Manuel Harlan

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Present Laughter
By Noel Coward
Old Vic Theatre, London SE1

Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Published on June 28, 2019
www.oldvictheatre.com

There are times in an actor's career, albeit rare, when the play, the role and the career timing unite as if the moon and the planets have dictated it and theatrical magic is created. It has happened here for Andrew Scott and this goes into the category of never-to-be-forgotten evenings.

One of Coward's more creaky vehicles, written for and about himself, it is hard to make it sing for today's audiences and not to revert to museum theatre. Here, director Matthew Warchus casts it sublimely and switches the gender of a few of the lovers. It is surprising how little difference that makes and no doubt Coward would have been chuffed.

Present Laughter Sophie Thompson's Monica - a masterclass in Coward acting. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Key to it of course is Scott. Following Sherlock and Black Mirror and his once in a generation Hamlet and culminating in his 'Hot Priest' in Fleabag, his career is now at its peak. He attacks the role of the vainglorious actor Gary Essendine with a delightfully mischievous relish.

Essendine is a self-obsessed light-comedy star of 1930s West End who is preparing to embark on a tour of Africa, when amid a series of farcical incidents he has to deal with an overly complicated private and professional life. It's an escapist portrait of life as a star – the poor thing.

Act One opens with a female lover (Kitty Archer) splayed on his divan, the morning after the night before. Act Two, on another morning, this time with a hunky male lover Joe (Enzo Cilenti). When The Star finally emerges, hungover, from his boudoir he has either shoo them off or hide them in a spare room while also placating both his ex-wife (Indira Varma), who is managing his career, and his long-suffering secretary (Sophie Thompson). All this while his trusty staff: an eccentric spiritualist (Liza Sadovy) and a solid Cockney retainer (Joshua Hill, a scene stealer), merely raise their eyebrows and get on with it. He also has to cope with a crazed young playwright (Luke Thallon) obsessed in equal parts with his body and his body of work.

Any actor could have camped it but Scott mines the quips for honesty and manages to locate the quiet centre of Gary, equal parts loving and hating his lot, wishing he could run away, but knowing full well he'd race back.

He has the feline grace of a dancer, especially his hands, and uses his whole body to great comic effect in the epic tantrums, which are like great ballet solos. Even when the lines are acidic, Scott's natural charm manages to leaven them.

He is held up by a perfect supporting cast. Sophie Thompson's dry as dust Monica is like a worldly Miss Brodie, a masterclass in Coward acting. When she exits you long for her return.

Clad in Rob Howell's exquisite 1930s trouser suits (he also did the divine set) Indira Varma projects total star quality as Liz. Why she isn't cast in bigger roles is a total mystery.

In all, an evening of utter joy.

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Present Laughter Abdul Salis, Suzie Toase, Andrew Scott and Indira Varma. Photo: Manuel Harlan


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