BWW Review: PRESENT LAUGHTER, Old Vic
Great Scott! His recent turn as Fleabag's Hot Priest made him a global sex symbol. Now, Andrew Scott reminds audiences that he's just as irresistible on stage, leading Matthew Warchus's absolute romp of a Noël Coward revival with the kind of panache that makes this the comic performance of the year so far - and yet one also shot through with aching melancholy.Scott plays Coward's semi-autobiographical caricature Garry Essendine: a preening star of light romantic comedies, currently preparing for a tour to Africa from which, he melodramatically implies, he might not return. But first there's an exhausting amount of real-life drama to deal with, involving his own liaisons and the simmering intrigue created by his close-knit, co-dependent clan of friends and artistic collaborators.
Warchus's inspired revival switches the genders of two key supporting characters, which in turn makes Essendine overtly bisexual. It's a brilliant way to honour the subtext of Coward's work, as well as to add an extra layer of complexity to an already dizzying plot - and also to further complicate the idea of Essendine's blurred on- and offstage personas, and his fear of ever appearing without the mask.
Scott superbly conveys this identity crisis, exacerbated by looming middle age. He first appears in the remnants of his pirate costume from the night before, looking not so much like Hook as Barrie's Lost Boy who refuses to grow up. He demands, and discards, presents like a petulant toddler, and is overly reliant on his no-nonsense secretary Monica and ex-wife Liz to manage his life for him - even as he resents the way everyone else profits from his talent.
Yet it's impossible not to admire the way Scott's Essendine basks in the self-destructive chaos and expertly wriggles out of entanglements. The first of the latter is conquest Daphne, in smudged make-up and drooping fairy wings, who doesn't realise she's part of an oft-repeated farewell routine involving the recitation of Shelley, tortured cries of "I belong to the public!", and a statement that perhaps reveals more than intended: "There's something awfully sad about happiness".
When Liz takes him to task for his behaviour, he responds with deliciously overacted woundedness, slapping his own face in mock-chastisement. In fact, Scott's physicality throughout is simply sublime. Though he's also a master of Coward's acid quips, it's the expressive gestures that make this such a special turn: the waggling of hands to seemingly divine information from the air, dropping to the floor to represent a beetle, or awkwardly extracting his fingers from an unwanted handshake.
Warchus expertly ratchets up the comedy, until just the words "Peer Gynt", "latchkey" or "Hampstead Heath" have the audience howling. Phenomenal use is made, too, of Rob Howell's groovy Art Deco set for Essendine's London pad, its numerous doors inviting both French farce complications and a series of ostentatious entrances and exits - plus cushioned pouffes onto which people variously leap to monologue or fall face first.
There are wonderful supporting turns from Luke Thallon as a manic young playwright, Joshua Hill as the all-seeing valet, and Liza Sadovy as both a geriatric benefactor and - marvellously odd - the housekeeper with a sideline in spiritualism. Enzo Cilenti could bring more hunger to the predatory Joe, but there's a real charge when his seducer meets Scott's player, each seeing through the other's act.
Sophie Thompson lends her incomparable vocal gymnastics and keen sense of the absurd to Essendine's secretary, who alternately protects and needles him with semi-maternal exasperation. But his real foil is Liz, rivetingly played with sleek grace, brilliant wit and a fascinating undertow of sorrow by Indira Varma.
Just as coolly adept with the honeyed insincerity and devastating putdowns as Essendine ("You must be absolutely congealed!" she pretend-sympathises, the smile never reaching her eyes), she's very much his equal - and still bound to him in a way that pains them both. Essendine is tortured by company, and tortured by solitude; he can't bear to be with others, but he certainly can't be alone. He needs the mirror of an audience to know himself.
This is an exquisitely balanced production, its heady joys - inspired music cues, Howell's enviable costumes, including Scott resplendent in silk pyjamas, giddy gags and reveals - bolstered by a shrewd sense of Coward calling out the hypocrisy of social judgement. Hot Priest? This is 2019's hot ticket.
Present Laughter at the Old Vic until 10 August, and broadcast to cinemas on 28 November via NT Live
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan