If you could transplant the hearts face emoji onto humans, then the crowd at the Old Vic last night would have radiated red, pulsating love for Noel Coward’s Present Laughter. That’s because Andrew Scott was in the house, having recently traded in his cassocks from Fleabag, for a much more jazzy, art-deco inspired wardrobe in this Coward classic. And OMG (heartface emoji again) what a whoopee of an evening was had by all.
The play is semi-autobiographical and deals with the perils of fame. Garry Essendine (aka Coward and played by Andrew Scott) is a flamboyant, narcissistic comedy actor who is preparing for a tour of Africa. He’s in the throes of a midlife crisis, having recently turned 40 and is surrounded by both men and women who want a piece of him.
Present Laughter is set in Garry’s swanky apartment, all glitz and glamour with plenty of Art Deco flourishes. It’s frenetic in the Essendine household. A girl who is dressed in a Tinkerbell outfit wakes up on his living room sofa, looking like she’s had a good night, if you know what I mean. Daphne (Kitty Archer) we find out, is one of Garry’s obsessed fans, and she’s hoping to star in his life – forever. His staff storm around her nonchalantly, presumably used to morning-after scenes of this nature. The Scandinavian housekeeper, Miss Erikson (Liza Sadovy), is a study in gloom, sweeping in and out of the action without so much as a drop of hygge. Garry’s staff also includes cheeky valet Fred (Joshua Hill) and Garry’s ever-patient secretary of 17 years, Monica (the brilliant Sophie Thompson that we loved so much in Four Weddings and a Funeral.)
Garry’s ex, Liz Essendine (Indira Varma), swans in and out with great panache. She is still firmly grounded in his life and gets her hands dirty cleaning up his romantic interludes. Roland Maule (Luke Thallon) is the Garry-obsessed young playwright who surely ends up in a straightjacket at some point in his future.
Garry wants to grow old “with distinction”, but he’s acting like a man who can’t let go of his youth. He’s full of hyperboles (I’m maaaaaad about it”), jazzy hands, and affectation which we associate with Coward. I mean, Scott could be straight out of Coward’s “I went to a Marvellous Party” (well worth listening to if you haven’t already had the pleasure).
“I’m always acting…my life belongs to the public.”
And this is where there’s a twist and turn to the original plot: Joanna of ‘ye original version has morphed into Joe, a predatory stud with an Italian accent who conveniently forgets his key so he can spend the night in Garry’s flat. I’ll leave it there in case you don’t know the rest of this comedy of errors, but let’s just say, the sofa gets plenty of saucy action. This is effervescent chaos as its best.
Yes, it’s hammy and yes, it’s camp; perfect ingredients for this applesauce slapstick, tinged with hints of sadness of what could have been and what lies ahead on the star’s slippery slope to old age.
And Andrew Scott? His acting reeks of physicality. What can I say….the man is just a pure joy to watch. His Garry Essendine is full of pathos. There’s a quietness about Scott that hits you over the head and can literally take your breath away as you watch him tread the boards. I imagine one day, we will hold him in the same exalted regard as Olivier and Gielgud. How lucky are we that he left his fleas and his dogcollar behind to impersonate one of Coward’s most delicious characters.
Present Laughter at the Old Vic is on until 10 August. You can catch Present Laughter in cinemas across the UK on 28 November. The Old Vic is also holding a Q & A session with Andrew Scott on 25 July.
Be warned: the Old Vic is undergoing some serious renovation, and you’ll have to stand in long queues to access the stalls. My tip: avoid the queue by heading straight to the bar upstairs for a quick swifty. You can access stalls via a couple of doors off the bar. Oh, and the toilets are under construction too, so follow the signs outside if you need a jaunt to the loo.Tally-ho!
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