Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Present Laughter follows a few days in the life of Garry Essendine, an esteemed stage actor, just before he embarks on a tour of Africa. As the play progresses, it delves into Garry’s ego, penchant for one-night stands with bright young things, and precarious relationships with his nearest and dearest – an ex-wife, a beleaguered secretary, and friends and business partners Morris and Henry – all explored with equally humorous and heart-breaking results. The play debuted in 1942 and was one of Noel Coward’s best-known plays, earning great praise from critics and the public alike. Many have said that the character of Garry Essendine is a self-portrait – Coward was known as ‘the original pop star’ and had to navigate the highs and lows of celebrity life himself. The 2019 revival’s director, Andy Warchus, chose to stay true to Coward’s script, apart from two key gender swaps: ‘Henry’ becomes ‘Helen’, and his wife becomes a husband. This is key in the way that the relationships between characters play out, and, arguably, more accurately reflects Coward’s character and original intention for the script, as he himself was closeted during his lifetime.
A sharp, witty energy is kept up throughout Present Laughter, building to a wickedly comic crescendo in the second act. Coward’s fantastic script comes alive in the intricacies of each sparkling performance. Andrew Scott, darling of the public in a very similar vein to Noel Coward and Garry Essendine, plays up to the character’s theatrical nature brilliantly. Strutting around the stage, often pausing to drape himself over various items of furniture, he imbues the role in a decadently languid way at moments, and then all of a sudden leaps into impassioned speeches about his perceived mistreatment. In one particularly memorable scene, he slaps himself around the face repeatedly, bemoaning his ‘breadwinner’ status. Scott milks the melodrama and runs with it, providing the audience with too many laughs to count.
However, it is in the more reflective, vulnerable moments that Scott proves his talent. In Essendine, Coward shows the darker, more insidious nature of celebrity – the loneliness despite being surrounded by friends and fans, the anxiety around ageing, the drain on energy. Scott manages to tackle this sensitively without surrendering the striking nature of the darker scenes, such as the very end scene in which Garry is dealing with the fallout of his affair with a close friend’s husband. Thanks to Scott’s more hushed approach, we really see Essendine as the ‘lost boy’ he has previously described himself as, allowing us to sympathise with the bolshie, obstinate luminary for the first time. While his shouty, attention-grabbing approach to the script’s points of high-camp drama was tiring at times, the way in which he crafts his exploration of the more unguarded facets of Essendine’s character is relentlessly engaging.
Another fascinating performance was that of Sophie Thompson as Monica, Garry’s secretary. Inherently the calm to his storm, Monica is a motherlike figure to him, but she is just as fiery as her roguish boss. Thompson manages this balance effortlessly, playing up to Scott’s audacity in one moment and becoming the level-headed, patient counsellor in another. She does all of this without sacrificing any stage presence – her Scottish lilt dominates whether she is providing another cutting retort or talking Garry down from a new anxiety.
The set, an avant-garde studio in Essendine’s home, becomes the playground of its occupants, with side doors used to hide a number of sins, or rather, lovers and annoying fanboys. In its unity of setting, the play communicates Garry’s inner struggles. The audience never get to see the world outside and can therefore appreciate the star’s imbalanced nature; it is like he is caged in by his responsibilities to his peers and public alike.
While the production excelled in creating a space in which celebrity could be explored in its hilarity and vulnerability alike, I felt that, at points, I wasn’t fully on board with the supposed high stakes of Garry’s behaviour. There was a failure in the first act to properly underpin the action with any meaningful sense of tension, owing to the fleeting introduction of Helen and Morris, both of whom Garry later upsets because of an affair with Helen’s husband Joe, who is also (confusingly) Morris’ lover. Apart from being an emotional betrayal, this was apparently a betrayal of the ‘firm’ too. But, given that the audience hadn’t really been shown a great deal of what the ‘firm’ entailed, I didn’t feel as though our loyalty to either Helen, Morris, or the ‘firm’ was as high as Coward perhaps assumed it would have been. Therefore, until the second act when everything started to unravel slightly more, I was confused as to the relevance of certain moments in the play.
Overall, however, the brilliant second act made up for this and more, and really cemented the play’s excellence in my mind. By the end, I could see why this play remains such an imperishable pillar of the British stage – an uproarious, yet tender glimpse at the world of stardom.