Review – Present Laughter, Old Vic

Monday 24 June 2019

You wait a lifetime for a frothy wartime comedy by a gay Sir that opens with someone waking up the worse for wear and wondering who the stranger they picked up last night is and you get two in a little over a week. What are the chances?

First there was Sir Terence Rattigan’s 1943 While the Sun Shine‘s now we have Sir Noël Coward‘s 1939 Present Laughter.

This one is attracting attention as it stars Fleabag‘s “hot priest”, Andrew Scott. And if you’re wondering if it’s ok to objectify him in that way, well, apparently it is. Stephen Fry and Paloma Faith did just that to Scott on The Graham Norton Show a couple of weeks ago. We tried to imagine the situation if the genders were switched. Somehow we couldn’t.

And while we are on the subject of gender-switching we will dispense with that thorny little thing right away before we become too bogged down with effusive praise. Matthew Warchus‘ production has switched a couple of the characters sexes so that Scott’s Garry Essendine now has a liking for both oysters and snails. The character is thought to be based on Coward who wrote it to provide himself with a large starring role. Maybe If Coward had been writing in a more enlightened age this version might have been what he may have wanted to write. We will never know. But we just didn’t think it added anything. If anything it distracted and detracted slightly. But maybe that’s just us.

And to get all minor carping done and dusted Indira Varma‘s armful of bracelets clanked annoyingly in Act 1 but that wasn’t as irritating as the background recording of birds chirruping throughout the play.

Whew. Glad to get that of our chests. Here’s what we did like:

  • Scott’s Essendine. He’s an egocentric light comedy actor about to embark on a difficult theatrical tour of Africa. Everybody around the actor appear to be obsessed with him but none more so than the egocentric actor himself. We may have struggled with references to his thinning hair as it looked pretty lustrous to us but Scott just gets funnier and funnier as the show progresses. Look out for the moment he receives a dressing gown as a gift. Watch out for his reaction to a potentially problematic wristwatch. His two big post-interval rants are a thing of wonder.
  • Sophie Thompson as Gary’s secretary Monica. If she’s not channelling Maggie Smith’s Jean Brodie then we don’t know who is. She gets the play off to a very good start with big laughs in the opening few minutes and pretty much carries on in that vein with her every utterance and long-suffering look. Expect an Olivier nomination. Expect Dame Maggie to sue.
  • Rob Howell’s set may have been a bit too stridently Deco for Phil’s taste but it has plenty of doors for post-interval slamming and some of his costumes (clanky bracelets aside) are very agreeable especially when worn by the wonderful Varma as Gary’s almost ex-wife Liz.
  • The balloons! Did Phil really say he liked the balloons, normally one of his theatrical bêtes noires ? No, you’re right, he didn’t really like them but he did appreciate the Old Vic sending out this presumably personalised email warning before our visit “Please note that this production includes smoking (herbal cigarettes), some adult content and latex balloons.”
  • The audience. We loved them as they applauded several of the actors’ exits. We haven’t seen that happen for a very, very long time. It was like being back at the Theatre Royal Brighton in the Seventies.
  • Coward insisted on a 25-week long tour of the provinces before bringing the original production into the West End. His producer, Binkie Beaumont, wasn’t too pleased. Watch out for a remark to flatter those provincial audiences at the West End’s expense. Coward certainly knew how to work his crowds.
  • Sophie Thompson.
  • The eccentric seance-loving housekeeper played by Liza Sadovy. Sadovy puts on an endearingly rubbish disguise to play another character in Act 2 to hilarious effect. Joyless “woke” nit-pickers will no doubt take offence at this depiction of old age and some hilarious business with her wheelchair, but we – like most of the audience – howled.
  • Suzie Toase in one of the gender-swapped roles. We risked blighting her career by predicting big things for her back in 2007. Since then she’s been in One Man, Two Guvnors, a few Harry Potter films and now this. It appears we haven’t done her too much harm.
  • Sophie Thompson.
  • Star-in-the-making Luke Thallon as Roland Maule absolutely splendid as an aspiring young playwright who becomes increasingly obsessed with Essendine. Although you’ll be transfixed by Scott’s gargantuan final rant spare a moment to glance over to the left of the stage and watch Thallon’s face during the scene. Priceless.
  • Sophie Thompson. Did we mention we liked her?

We were at a very early preview but even at this stage this is the fizziest and funniest thing that director Matthew Warchus has presented on a stage since he rediscovered Boeing Boeing with Mark Rylance in 2007.

If this doesn’t get a transfer to London’s glittering West End and possibly beyond, then Phil will eat his silk dressing gown.

A hoot and a half and then some.









2 Responses to “Review – Present Laughter, Old Vic”

  1. johnnyfoxlondon Says:

    Oh I’ll have to go, now. Talking of provincial tours, did you know that aside from the 25-week UK tryouts, in 1948 Coward toured it playing the Garry character renamed Max Aramont IN YOUR ACTUAL FRENCH for two months starting in Brussels before its official opening in Paris.

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