No one is hotter than Andrew Scott right now. After his head-turning role as a conflicted Catholic priest in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, and his devastating Olivier-nominated Dane in Robert Icke’s Hamlet two years ago, the sky seems to be the limit for the acclaimed Irish actor. Everyone expects Oliviers and Oscars.
But few would have expected this: for his next project, Scott is playing the protagonist in a production of Noel Coward’s much-revived 1943 comedy of manners Present Laughter at the Old Vic. On the surface, Coward’s farcical play about a famous, flamboyant and promiscuous actor isn’t exactly hard-hitting stuff.
Directed by Old Vic helmsman Matthew Warchus and running at the South Bank venue until early August, Present Laughter sees Sherlock-star Scott make his first stage appearance since Simon Stephens’ Sea Wall here a year ago. Alongside him are Indira Varma, Sophie Thompson, Enzo Cilenti, Suzie Toase and Luke Thallon.
But does Scott’s stock continue to soar? Is Coward’s classic comedy catnip for the critics? Is laughter present at Present Laughter? Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Present Laughter, which was originally titled Sweet Sorrow, follows the affairs of ageing actor Garry Essendine, as he fends off ardent admirers, passionate playwrights and long-suffering secretaries.
Warchus has made one big alteration, flipping the gender of Essendine’s lascivious lover from Joanna to Joe. It’s a move most critics approve of, with Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★★) writing that it “brings a sexual complexity that feels entirely apt”, Sarah Hemming (Financial Times, ★★★★★) suggesting that it adds “new depth”, and Daisy Bowie-Sell (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★★) calling it “an apposite switch, which fits believably and easily into proceedings”.
It “makes perfect sense, accounting (but never ham-fistedly) for the psychic unease that courses beneath Garry’s preening pyrotechnics”, assesses Matt Wolf (Arts Desk, ★★★★★), while Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★★) opines that it deepens “the play’s teasing consideration of acting and its perils”.
Only Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★) and Patrick Marmion (Daily Mail, ★★★★) aren’t so sure. “I am in two minds about the gender-swap,” considers Billington. “There may be a hint of misogyny in Coward’s original but there is also more dramatic logic.”
Warchus’ production is heaped with praise everywhere else, though. It’s “illuminating and luminously funny” according to Bowie-Sell, “a revelatory staging that finds the pathos beneath the patter” according to Hemming, and “realised with panache and a rich sense of mischief” according to Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★★).
“Warchus brings nuance and pathos to a play that could otherwise feel feather-light and archaic,” observes Tripney. “It may well be about the fragility of the male ego, but it’s a huge amount of fun.”
“It’s like being transported to a parallel universe where everyone is bisexual, endlessly stylish and schooled from birth in the art of the bon mot,” concludes Alice Saville (Time Out, ★★★★★).
Scott’s recent résumé reads like a catalogue of hits – Sherlock, Pride, Fleabag, Hamlet, Sea Wall, Black Mirror. He’s done something similar to this before, too: in 2010, he was in an Old Vic revival of Coward’s Design for Living, alongside Tom Burke and Lisa Dillon. Does he prolong his purple patch even further?
Of course he does. He is “stratospherically gifted” according to Wolf, supplies a “virtuosic performance” according to Billington, and is “frighteningly good” according to Saville.
“He makes the role his own, tempering his character’s towering vanity with vulnerability,” writes Tripney. “And he’s in his element with Coward’s sparkling dialogue, finding reservoirs of sadness and self-knowledge in this man who is always on, always acting, to some extent.”
“Scott brings to the part the dark mischief, superb comic timing and gleeful outrageousness that made his Moriarty so magnetic,” chimes Hemming. “But the genius of his performance is its undertow of vulnerability and despair.”
“Scott is supreme, tracing the air with lots of mime-like business, catching the musicality of the wit as he tilts between sounds faint and ironic, boomy and actorly and waspishly sardonic,” says Cavendish, while Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★★) writes that “his panache fills the entire theatre” and that “the part feels made for him and he knows it”.
“It’s a fascinatingly detailed interpretation of a character who’s flirtatious, stroppy and acerbic yet also drowning in melancholy,” agrees Hitchings. “Scott achieves something genuinely audacious in making him both odious and adorable.”
It’s “a positively cyclonic performance,” reckons Marmion.
It’s not just the Andrew Scott show, though. Alongside Fleabag’s hot priest are rising star Thallon, Game of Thrones’ Varma and Olivier-winner Thompson. All are almost universally praised.
Thompson, who plays the long-suffering secretary of Scott’s Essendine, is “blissfully funny” according to Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★), “immensely droll” according to Hemming, and “pitch-perfect” according to Treneman. “Thompson is a mix of schoolmistress, mother and friend, and she makes the early scenes sing,” describes Bowie-Sell.
“Varma, as Essendine’s wife, who is trying her hardest to keep Essendine from unravelling, is also superb,” continues Bowie-Sell. “Light-footed with the comedy, and perfectly barbed with the wit.”
She brings “affectionate warmth” for Tripney, while for Hemming she is “excellent”, “delivering needle-sharp put-downs with effortless style, but also demonstrating quiet care for her messed-up ex.”
Thallon, meanwhile, “steals the show more than once as the star-struck fan Roland Maule,” writes Treneman. He’s got a “sure comic touch” according to Hitchings and is “formidably funny” according to Cavendish.
It’s only Billington that has a bugbear, opining that some performances are “a bit overpitched”. Everyone else enjoys them immensely.
“I found I wanted to watch all of them, all together, all the time,” gushes Bowie-Sell, while Cavendish commends “the old-fashioned virtue of bravura performances”, which are, he concludes, “everywhere”.
It’s not good, it’s great. Really, really great. After earning five-star reviews almost everywhere, Present Laughter is perhaps the most critically successful show of the year so far.
Warchus’ staging is seriously funny, and smartly switches a couple of genders to concentrate Coward’s dazzling dissection of the lonely life of a famous actor. The supporting cast is superb as well, but it’s Scott that steals the headlines. He’s heaped with praise for his performance as Garry Essendine, and his ability to capture the character’s hilarity and hubris.
He remains red-hot, and further cements his reputation as one of the finest actors of his generation.