REVIEW: ‘Present Laughter’, Old Vic

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‘Present Laughter’, Old Vic

Matthew Warchus directs Andrew Scott in a new adaptation of Noel Coward’s ‘Present Laughter’ for the Old Vic Theatre.

Scott plays renowned actor Garry Essendine who, whilst preparing to embark on an overseas tour to Africa, finds himself in the throes of an existential crisis, as he struggles to come to terms with the loneliness resulting from his fame. 

Garry is a well known actor, a dedicated and seasoned thespian, adored, worshipped, by all who know him. He has played a great number of parts, and has been discouraged, by those who care for him, from playing certain others. He is always acting, to the point where he no longer realises this himself. Melodramatic to the extreme, he over-acts, over-reacts, and over-dramatises.

During his longer dramatic monologues, Garry shushes those that interrupt him, wanting to be the sole focus of attention. Though he publicly clamours for peace and quiet, frequently dropping to his knees in despair when the phone or door bell rings, he really desires company. And it is with such company that attention comes his way.

He is surrounded by people all competing for his attention, circling him the way a constellation of planets do the sun – unable to get too close. Garry is lonely, a distance resulting as he appears to instinctively push people away. There is a revolving, occasionally an intertwining, but these people circle, dance around him, whilst he, a dazzling sun, radiating theatricality, is perpetually alone.

Since his wife Liz left him some years ago, though a divorce is yet to materialise, Garry has taken lovers, possibly male and female, longing for company and, naively perhaps, love. However, he feels that true love is, for him, elusive, seeing himself as belonging, not to one person, but to the public, such as his job, and therefore his ‘duty’, demands. 

His behaviour does not help his cause, however. At the beginning of the production, we are introduced to Daphne, a young lady that has spent the night at Garry’s residence after ‘losing her latch key’. Even though Daphne only met Garry the previous night, she has adored him for years, and professes her love to him. Garry effectively pushes her away, albeit in tones that are wildly more romantic as he recites a Shelley poem.

Andrew Scott further establishes himself as one of the finest actors of this generation with his formidable performance as Garry Essendine. Though his character unreservedly over-acts, Scott’s performance is perfect – nuanced, detailed and layered, with a depth to it that transcends the superficiality of his self-indulgent lifestyle. He presents us with a man at breaking point, desperately lonely, wanting to be loved for who he truly is, secretly longing to cast off the shackles of an industry that can be overbearing, binding him to a distorted sense of duty that he belongs, not to himself, but to the wider public. 

Scott switches from immense delight to intense melancholy in an instant, showcasing a great range and versatility, and a masterful control over his effortlessly natural performance. His character is admirable, but one that evokes pity. Though there is a fabulous theatricality to his performance, here also exists a complexity, which rears its head in particular during his occasional outbursts of sincerity and, often brutal, honesty.

Garry’s behaviour, spiralling out of control, is in danger of becoming self-destructive, the effects upon his psychological state unhealthy. He keeps at an arm’s length those who love him the most, those upon whom he depends for support, encouragement, and love. He is fickle and interchangeable – one minute he is being ‘forced’ to go to Africa, the next he cannot wait. The fickleness and interchangeableness of a life in theatre has engendered an instability, a restlessness, within him.

There is a superficiality to his life, and the production gives us a surprisingly modern glimpse into the lives of celebrities, which also goes for those today, who reach an existential crisis point as they question the material and immaterial aspects of their lives, wondering who they really are, who really knows them, who they can really trust, and who really loves them. 

Despite the play’s hilarity, therefore, the production is a stirring portrayal of loneliness, particularly for those whose loneliness bred by fame.

Indira Varma is splendid as Liz Essendine, Garry’s elegant wife. Though Liz left Garry many years ago, the two still benefit from a strong and healthy relationship as friends. Liz comes and goes as she pleases, and she and Garry share chaste kisses, signs of a continued and mutual affection. The two clearly have feelings for each other – though the nature of this sometimes leaves us guessing, particularly when she declares she will return to him – and Liz recognises Garry’s need for her, a dependency, if you will. Liz is one of the few characters that can be totally honest with Garry, and give him a personality check when necessary. She is always there for him, and is just a phone call away should he ever find himself in a sticky situation and need her help.

Sophie Thompson is delightfully funny as Monica Reed. Secretary to Garry for 17 years, she is loyal and steadfast, and the two have a very touching relationship, with a lovely display following a party, when Monica goes to leave, and Garry keeps a firm hold of her hand, while she giggles like a young girl, before they begin playing with a balloon together. There seems to be a maternal nature to her role, but she and Garry are firm friends. She can be, and indeed is, totally honest with him, and doesn’t shy away from telling him when he is over-acting. There is a mutual respect between them, and Garry looks up to her, admires her, at times, it seems, even envies her – her straightforwardness, her realism, and her life, with no need for theatrical pretence.

Luke Thallon’s Roland Maule is the ultimate fanboy. A wannabe playwright, he meets Garry to receive feedback on a script he sent. When Garry is honest, and not particularly complimentary of it, Roland becomes somewhat impudent, which irritates Garry, who proceeds to give a rather striking speech on what makes a playwright successful, of how one should work from the very bottom up, learning everything they can, writing 20 average plays before arriving at one good one, to ignore the theatre of the future, which can take care of itself, and to concentrate on the future of today. Roland is very taken with Garry at this point, confident he has seen ‘the real him’. From here on, he becomes childishly overexcited, bouncing up and down like a little puppy around Garry’s feet, impossible to shake off.

Kitty Archer’s ditzy and dramatic Daphne Stillington claims to be in love with Garry, having only known him for one night, but adoring him from afar for several years. Though she is 24 and he is pushing 40, Daphne declares that age is irrelevant, and she believes she can make Garry happy. Though he bids her au revoir with a romanticised flourish, she proves that she will not be gotten rid of that easily, and connives of a way to present herself to him once more. On so doing, she uncovers the depth of his loneliness, and desires to rid him of it.

Enzo Cilenti’s silver-tongued serial seducer Joe Lyppiatt, despite being married to Helen, is also in love with Garry, and has been so for the past 7 years. Another one that ‘loses his latch key’, Joe visits Garry and attempts to seduce him. Like Garry, we question whether he is genuinely, and if for a moment we begin to believe that he is, this belief is quickly shattered when we discover that he has had, in fact has got, another lover, and it is later implied that he is nothing more than a collector of conquests. 

Abdul Salis is Morris Dixon, initially collected and dignified, but hysterical when he doesn’t hear from the man he loves overnight. Suzie Toase’s Helen Lyppiatt is very passionate and particularly animated towards the end of the production, when she learns of her husband’s indiscretions, that is until it is leaked that she has not been all that discreet herself. Liza Sadovy is wonderful as the quirky Miss Erikson. A frequenter to the homes of mediums and spiritualists, she is no doubt as a source of comfort and security to Garry as a trusting member of his household. Joshua Hill’s Fred gets to deliver some great one-liners, and his knowing glances and reactions to Garry’s behaviour and fantastic.

This is a very well-constructed production, a fine comedy, with an increasing pace, an unyielding hilarity, and an ever-growing sense of intrigue. 

To balance with the play’s razor-sharp wit, there is a loneliness, a melancholy, a sadness in its happiness, that adds a respectable but by no means heavy weight to its surface. 

A fundamentally honest production with an irresistible charm, ‘Present Laughter’ is an outrageously funny, scandalously farcical, acutely theatrical comedy. 

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