In his program notes for the recent Old Vic revival of Noël Coward's 1939 play 'Present Laughter', director Matthew Warchus refers to Coward as the "original pop star" - a multitalented self-fashioned celebrity renowned the world over for his specific brand of wit and personality, woven into his work as an writer, actor, composer and raconteur. This put him in the perfect position to comment on the cult of celebrity, its advantages, pitfalls and abysses, all of which he poured into the foundations of 'Present Laughter'. The Old Vic production reaffirms its position as a classic, opening to packed houses and incredible acclaim, and now Australian audiences have a chance to see it for themselves thanks to National Theatre Live.
At the centre of 'Present Laughter' is stage star Garry Essendine (Andrew Scott, 'Fleabag, 'Sherlock'), a dashing, handsome and infuriating narcissist. He is the sun around which the planets of his friends and colleagues orbit, including his ex-wife Liz (Indira Varma, 'Official Secrets'), his secretary Monica (Sophie Thompson), his manservant Fred (Joshua Hill) and his producing partners Helen (Suzie Toase) and Morris (Abdul Salis). On the eve of a repertory tour of Africa, the many threads of those orbits, of Gary's lives and lovers, begin to tangle and knot, pushing him to the edge of hysterical chaos.
There's always a risk with British comedies of this era and form feeling stolid and stale, especially if the production team are unable to circumnavigate its often outdated depiction of sexuality, race and gender. In this production though, 'Present Laughter' roars to life with energy, electricity and immediacy. From the moment it begins, it moves like a freight train and explodes like fireworks thanks to rigorous direction and dramaturgy, brilliant design and a perfect cast, all fashioned to mine deep into Coward's text and unearth the very human and often moving subtext underneath. There's a palpable sense of panic through the play, all of the characters (including Kitty Archer and Luke Thallon as two of Gary's admirers with no sense of personal boundaries) thrusting themselves into Gary's light in the hope that he will give them some meaning, while Gary frantically shuffles through them to find the same from them. It feels as if time is running out, but rather than something tangible, it's the existential nothingness of existence that's pressing on them, exacerbated by the black hole that Gary's celebrity has become. Everything he does is (or appears to be) a performance, warping truth with insincerity. The production barely stops to breathe, but the noise and movement just add to the intense isolation Gary has landed himself in. He is a man standing in a crowded room, screaming at the top of his lungs, but those around him have either given up listening or are screaming just as loudly as he is.
All of this subtext just strengthens the incredible humour playing on the surface. Both Warchus and the cast take total command of Coward's devastating wit, enhancing it with virtuosic physical comedy calibrated to mine as much out of the text possible without ever overwhelming it. The movements of bodies and objects through the space of Gary's sitting room is almost balletic, with Rob Howell's set creating both a safe haven, a gladiatorial arena and a pulpit from which to proclaim sweeping pontifications and declarations of love. It's a remarkable feat that, as unrelenting as the humour, movement and volume of 'Present Laughter' is, it never feels overwhelming. Not a moment of chaos feels wasted or haphazard, and as each farcical act builds to its crescendo, you feel yourself rising in your seat, desperate to see Coward's next twist or the production's next surprise.
And as the celestial body at the heart of it, Andrew Scott has to be seen to be believed. Any question of his incredible talent disappears the moment he appears, and the balancing act he performs between Gary's narcissism, desperation, petulance, hyperbole, instability, hysteria, terror and unexpected honesty is breathtaking. He devours Coward's monologues, imbuing them with a bombastic and sensual physicality that only he could pull off, and yet at no point, even at his most verbose, does any of it feel unearned or frivolous. This is a specific, controlled, calibrated and intelligent performance, where the hysteria plays the long game to prepare you for the moments where Gary has no choice but to crash and burn. Andrew Scott towers in this production, and he alone would make it a must-see.
The great surprise is how superb the entire cast turn out to be. Sophie Thompson almost steals every moment she's in as Monica, a kind of Scottish mother figure for Gary - she sounds like Maggie Smith and has no problem throwing the barbs back in his face. Indira Varma as Liz is a perfect foil for Gary, grabbing his kite strings and bringing him down to earth with ease and style. Joshua Hill makes Fred the dreamboat manservant of our fantasies every moment he walks on stage, and both Kitty Archer and Luke Thallon bring a wonderfully adorable unhinged mania in their obsessions with Gary, with Archer in particular delivering a monologue for the ages. Enzo Cinenti also does a sterling job as Joe Lyppiart, Helen's husband who also makes a point of seducing both Morris and Gary, sending everyone else into a tailspin and setting off some of the more delicious moments of farce in the production.
Not a moment of chaos feels wasted or haphazard, and as each farcical act builds to its crescendo, you feel yourself rising in your seat, desperate to see Coward's next twist or the production's next surprise.
The handling of sexuality is often one of the most satisfying aspects of this production of 'Present Laughter' - rather than maintaining Coward's carefully veiled camp codings, the free bisexuality of the cast is cracked open, a weapon both the characters and the production can wield with greater ease. As a consequence, not only is this a thoroughly entertaining production but a sexually thrilling one as well, weaponising Scott's insatiable charisma in particular to dreamy effect.
Thankfully, the excellence of the production is matched by the craft of the broadcast, director for screen Marcus Viner matching the careful chaos of 'Present Laughter' with the camera and editing. The only thing that feels lacking in the experience is the thrill of live bodies in front of you, and where recent NT Live experiences have felt unable to maintain the storytelling of the productions they have captured, here the storytelling is crystal clear and even enhanced by catching the nuances in the performances and design.
If you are able to make it to a screening of 'Present Laughter', do not hesitate or be put off by the runtime. This is the kind of classic comedy we don't get to see in Australia - executed at the highest quality and without compromise, sexy and immediate and hysterical. I'm sure that if I'd been sitting in the audience of the Old Vic itself, seeing this remarkable production live, I wouldn't have come out alive. This is one of those moments you have to be thankful for initiatives like National Theatre Live, preserving this great night of the theatre and bringing it to audiences all over the world.