The Old Vic has landed another smash hit in the form of Matthew Warchus’ glittering revival of Noel Coward’s Present Laughter. Annabel Mellor reviews:

Starring flavour of the month Andrew Scott as matinee idol Garry Essendine, Matthew Warchus’ creation plumbs new depths of the provocative 30s comedy, Present Laughter.

Present Laughter Old Vic

Andrew Scott (image courtesy of Manuel Harlan)

Essendine, star of the stage, is the sun around which orbits an entire complex system of dependent friends, lovers and admirers. We open on the morning after the night before, as a frantic Daphne Stillington (Kitty Archer dressed as Tinkerbell) scampers around calling for coffee and searching for her green sparkly stockings. She has stayed over, having “forgotten her latch key”, and refuses to leave until a weary Essendine delivers his favourite passage from Shelley and throws her out.

Thus begins the Essendine’s accumulation of an entire entourage of adoring would-be lovers, all desperate to protect and care for him, to save him from himself. In preparation for a high-stakes tour of Africa, while attempting to hold together his close-knit group of old friends and in increasing need of a break, he fends off advance after advance. Chaos, obviously, ensues.

Present Laughter Old Vic

Indira Varma (image courtesy of Manuel Harlan)

Scott dazzles as  Essendine, drawing us into his whimsical world of silk dressing gowns and besotted admirers. He has the distinct air of a toddler constantly on the verge of a tantrum, and yet it’s impossible not to adore him for his easy charm and charisma. It’s a truly virtuosic performance that brims with wit, sensitivity and animal magnetism. Coward may have written the part for himself but Scott, it seems, was born to play it.

There is sterling supporting from Sophie Thompson as Essendine’s acerbic secretary Monica Reed and Indira Varma as his ex(ish) wife Liz, who skewers him mercilessly with Coward’s needle-sharp put-downs. Luke Thallon deserves a special mention for an outrageous turn as the besotted playwright Roland Maule.

By elevating the best of Coward’s dialogue, giving due space to the play’s more tender moments, Warchus has coaxed out a genuinely moving tale of loneliness in the middle of a crowd. When Essendine confesses he is always acting, or clutches Monica’s hand and refuses to let go, we feel his pain and fragility. We understand what it is to always get what you want, but never what you need.

Present Laughter Old Vic

Andrew Scott & Enzo Cilenti (image courtesy of Manuel Harlan)

Much of the second act is finely tuned farce and Warchus steers a safe course through the chaos, (only just) toeing the fine line between comedic frenzy and outright mania. It is rampantly, breathlessly funny throughout.

Changing the gender of Joe Lyppiatt (Enzo Cilenti) – formerly Joanna – Essendine’s fated amour, is a good choice, tilting much of the story’s covert queerness into explicit, delightful, arbitrary bisexuality. In this Present Laughter is a world where attractive people are attracted to other attractive people, and as a result, it feels modern and progressively carefree.

Present Laughter Old Vic

Image courtesy of Manual Harlan

This is a real visual feast of a show, stylish to the last thanks to the art deco glamour of Rob Howell’s set: the front room of Essendine’s London flat has the air of a Paris literary salon. His costume choices are flawless too – Liz is a constant breath of fresh air in an array of excellent trousers and Joe cuts a magnificent figure in his vintage white tie.

Sating each and every one of the senses, Present Laughter is a true delight. There’s no doubt that Scott is the star, but it’s artful from every angle.

★★★★★

Present Laughter plays at The Old Vic until 10 August 2019. For more information or to buy tickets, please visit the venue website.