Comedy gold from Noël Coward and Andrew Scott
Present Laughter at The Old Vic is not only the best show I’ve seen this year, it is one of the funniest plays I’ve ever seen.
Why? First let me pay credit to Noël Coward. That man knew how to put together a stage play and he wrote fabulous dialogue. But it’s got to be directed and acted well. Director Matthew Warchus proves once again he is a genius. After this and his previous Hamlet, Andrew Scott is now the leading contender for the best actor of his generation.
Present Laughter is about a famous comic actor called Garry Essendine. He can’t stop acting even when he’s being serious. He’s surrounded by a team of people who rely on him and upon whom he relies. Everyone- his team and his fans- needs him and reacts to him but he needs them to maintain his celebrity. The achievement of this production is to bring out this neediness.
How does Andrew Scott do it? Not with the suave coolness or the drawling delivery we might expect from Noël Coward or any old fashioned actor but by behaving like a spoilt child. He is a lost boy in Peter Pan, as Kenneth Tynan famously described Coward. This seems to perfectly capture the nature of celebrity.
Garry is always performing and, from the moment Andrew Scott appears, about ten minutes in, he dominates the stage. Even when he’s not speaking his face is a constant picture of reactions. When he is speaking, his face continues to express shock, anger, amusement, the whole range of emotions. That might sound like it’s superficial or dumbshow, however the great achievement is that we are always aware that there are feelings inside that he is choosing to convey or hide through his acting. His reaction when accused of overacting is comedy gold- because of course his reaction is overacted. Scott is on stage nearly the whole time and the centre of attention for nearly all that time which means he keeps up this constantly changing expressions and cascade of lines for over two hours.
Andrew Scott’s comic timing is superb
His comic timing is superb. For example, there is a moment near the end when he is slapped by someone who then makes a big exit. Garry simply resumes the previous conversation as if nothing had happened. That much is in the script but Mr Scott makes us wait for his reaction, holds that anticipation how he will respond to the slap, so that when he carries on about a contract which is much more important to him, it says so much about his attitude to sex versus his career. And of course there are those deep eyes that can twinkle, pierce or panic.
In the programme, Matthew Warchus points out that Essendine is an anagram of ‘neediness’. The character seems shallow but hints at depths of self doubt and loneliness . Notably at the beginning of the final act, he is alone and, without an audience to bounce off, touchingly desperate.
In heaping all this praise on Andrew Scott, I don’t want to forget the other actors. They all support fantastically well- their comic timing also excellent. In particular Indira Varma as Garry’s separated wife Liz and Sophie Thompson as his secretary Monica provide touching performances as Gary’s calm support contrasting with his frenetic energy. They are not deceived by him and they care for him deeply, both managing to bring tears to their eyes at certain poignant moments.
Luke Thallon gives a bravura performance as the passionate aspiring playwright Roland Maule. Enzo Cilenti charms as the disruptive Joe who threatens to break up the team. Joshua Hill is the down-to-earth valet Fred. Liza Sadovy as Miss Erikson, Suzie Toase as Helen and Abdul Salis as Morris all contribute to the fun.
Congratulations to Rob Howell for designing beautiful costumes and an art deco set that seemed to radiate from and swirl round our central character. He also neatly accommodated doors left right and dead centre for the French farce elements of the play.
I loved this production of Present Laughter with Andrew Scott. I recommend you do all you can to get a ticket and if you can’t, then watch the film of a live show later in the year in the cinema.