Noel Coward's play comes out of its 1930s closet
“I’m always acting!”
I was fortunate enough to start serious theatre going when Noël Coward’s plays were having a revival after those rather grim but worthy “kitchen sink” dramas set in council houses in the gritty, North of England among the working class. Coward’s wit was an amazing discovery for me in my late teens and all that parodying stiff upper lip stuff: questions like, “Are you happy darling?” and the extravagant reply “Ecstatically!” flatly delivered as if you had said, “I’m so, so.” It was the excitement of those satirical sketches presented by the Cambridge Footlights team of Beyond the Fringe and That Was the Week That Was from another era, the carefree 1930s.
Matthew Warchus and Andrew Scott have reimagined Noël Coward’s play Present Laughter with changing the gender of three of the characters and thereby making a couple of relationships in the play, gay rather than heterosexual. It works particularly well and is probably more representative of what inspired Noël Coward to write it. At that time of course the Lord Chamberlain who was in charge of theatrical censorship would have banned from the stage any sniff of homosexuality and he wasn’t too happy with adultery either.
The charismatic Andrew Scott, whom theatre audiences have known for two decades has recently become even more followed because of his roles as the arch villain Jim Moriarty in Sherlock and alongside the equally brilliant Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag, as her fantasy sex and love interest, “the hot priest” a Roman Catholic priest. Scott is an exceptionally talented actor and the part of the matinée idol Garry Essendine could have been written for him, although of course the Master wrote it in 1939 for himself to direct and act in. In 1943 when the theatres re-opened in wartime, Coward starred. Nine years ago, Andrew Scott starred in Coward’s play Design For Living at the Old Vic, again in a character based on Coward himself.
Rob Howell’s set is a feast of sweeping art deco curves in Majorelle blue, so loved by Yves Saint Laurent in the gardens in Marrakech, Morocco. Above the central archway is a relief of two hands one above the other and holding a single red rose, a motif of Coward himself. The first classic coffee service as served by Fred the butler (Joshua Hill) is made out of silver with a pointed lid straight out of a design museum. We are clearly in the hedonistic Thirties. For the farce there are several doors off this main living space.
Young aspiring starlet Daphne Stillington (Kitty Archer) is discovered asleep on the circular sofa wearing the remains of her fairy outfit from the night before. Daphne is discovered by Garry Essendine’s sardonic secretary of 17 years, service not age, Monica Reed (Sophie Thompson). It seems that Daphne mislaid her latch key the previous night in what is to become a riff.
Scott’s Garry Essendine makes his late entrance and we all wanted to applaud but also wanted to concentrate on what he had to say. Declarations of undying love are exchanged between Daphne and Garry before Garry wriggles out of any promises he might just have made. The wit is deliciously sparkling. “What does age matter when people love each other,” says Daphne, who is probably three decades his junior. “I wonder how often that has been tragically said,” answers Garry and in case we missed it, explained that he is an actor and that he is always acting.
Scott sparkles like a sequinned jacket, self absorbed, narcissistic and ambivalence personified but he is also captivating and very likeable. Enter the erstwhile but not yet divorced Mrs Essendine, Liz, (Indira Varma) in 30s fashions as sophisticated as her manner towards the man she was married to. Essendine is planning a trip to Africa but his wife talks about an actress they wanted him to star with. He dismisses the idea by cringeing and crawling on all fours, and says “She has the sex appeal of a haddock!” Liz retaliates by saying, “We stopped you in the nick of time from playing Peer Gynt!” which gets a resounding laugh from the knowledgeable audience.
Enter an aspiring playwright Roland Maure from Uckfield (the ghastly and sincere fan (Luke Thallon) who has a crush on Essendine but who has come to encourage him to perform more serious work, like Peer Gynt we speculate! Apparently Maure saw his last play 47 times. Essendine’s put down of Maure is superb.
We meet Helen Lyppiatt (Suzie Toase) the transgendered producer Henry and Essendine’s manager Morris Dixon (a lisping Abdul Salis). There is talk about Helen’s husband Joe (Enzo Lippiatt) another gender reversal from the original. Act One closes with another person forgetting their latch key and ending up allegedly in Essendine’s spare room.
Act One has been very light and breezy and we could morally be in the twenty first century apart from the beautiful décor. But Act Two is very different as eyebrows are raised in mass disapproval at the digression from heterosexuality.
Monica has some of the best one liners in this play as she conveys that she has no illusions as far as Garry Essendine is concerned. Matthew Warchus’ programme note explains that Essendine is an anagram of neediness as we see that Garry cannot settle as he always thinks something more attractive is on the horizon. Joe too is revealed as something of a philanderer and as the play hits high farce all secrets are exposed as all of Garry’s lovers line up and prepare to sail to Africa with him.
There have been some productions of Present Laughter, originally alluding to the many partings and titled Sweet Sorrows, which have been less than satisfactory but the combination of Warchus and Scott’s ideas, Warchus’s direction and Scott’s acting is so compelling, I expect to see some best actor and best director and best play nominations. Don’t miss this; pray for a West End or New York transfer and on 28th November 2019 there will be an NT Live screening to cinemas. Risk missing this at your peril!
Written by Noel Coward
Directed by Matthew Warchus
Director: Matthew Warchus
Designer: Rob Howell
Co–Lighting Designers: Hugh Vanstone and Tim Lutkin
Sound Designer: Simon Baker
Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes with one interval
Closed on 10th August 2019, currently showing as NT Live Encore screenings in select cinemas
The Old Vic
London SE1 8NB
Box Office: 0844 871 7628
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Old Vic on 26th August 2019