A dark undercurrent often lurks beneath the surface of Noel Coward’s comedies. Present Laughter, his semi-autobiographical play about a puffed-up actor, is no different. Matthew Warchus’ slick, witty and unexpectedly tender production both subverts and exploits that juxtaposition.
Andrew Scott – hotter than a glass blower’s furnace after his appearance in TV series Fleabag – is gloriously well-cast as Garry Essendine, the devastatingly charismatic actor, who at 40, is starting to feel his age and is reluctantly about to embark on a tour of Africa. “I look 98,” he frets, as he stares at his fleeing hairline in the mirror.
Warchus latches on to the fact that Coward’s original title for the play, written in 1939, was Sweet Sorrow. While not diluting Essendine’s colossal ego, he brings out the tragedy of his predicament, surrounded as he is on all sides by vampirically needy admirers, destined to be sucked dry.
Warchus also ingeniously flips the character of Joanna, the wife of Essendine’s close friend who determines to have her way with him. Often played as a ‘dangerous’ woman, and therefore an object of comedy, Joanna is now Joe, suavely played by Enzo Cilenti. This brings a sexual complexity to the production that feels entirely apt, pushing to the fore things that Coward could only have hinted at, while also defusing some of the play’s more problematic aspects. By making Joe of similar age to Essendine, the power balance between them shifts in interesting ways and there’s a genuine erotic tension between them.
Scott is simply magnificent. He makes the role his own, tempering his character’s towering vanity with vulnerability. He first appears dressed as a pirate, hungover and dishevelled in maroon pantaloons, staring at his hands with a mix of surprise and delight, like an infant. His comic timing is as exquisite as his pyjama trousers – all of Rob Howell’s costume designs are gorgeous – 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.
The supporting cast also excels. Indira Varma brings an affectionate warmth to ex-wife Liz. Luke Thallon devours the role of febrile young playwright Roland and Sophie Thompson, as Essendine’s long-suffering secretary Monica, creates a sense of fondness and respect between the two of them that goes well beyond that of employer and employee.
Warchus brings nuance and pathos to a play that could otherwise feel feather-light and archaic. Not only is it a huge amount of fun – Warchus has a sure hand when it comes to farce – but, thanks to his sensitive direction and Scott’s astonishingly good central performance, it’s also surprisingly moving.