Andrew Scott’s Garry liberates Coward’s Present Laughter in a gender-swapping production

30/11/2019

United KingdomUnited Kingdom National Theatre Live – Noël Coward’s Present Laughter: Directed for the screen by Marcus Viner and captured live at London’s The Old Vic and broadcast to Cineworld Basildon, Essex, 28.11.2019. (JPr)

Andrew Scott and Indira Varma in Present Laughter (c) Manuel Harlan

Production:

Director – Matthew Warchus
Set and Costume designer – Rob Howell
Lighting – Tim Lutkin and Hugh Vanstone
Sound – Simon Baker

Cast:

Andrew Scott – Garry Essendine
Kitty Archer – Daphne Stillington
Enzo Cilenti – Joe Lyppiatt
Joshua Hill – Fred
Abdul Salis – Morris Dixon
Liza Sadovy – Miss Erikson/Lady Saltburn
Luke Thallon – Roland Maule
Sophie Thompson – Monica Reed
Suzie Toase – Helen Lyppiatt
Indira Varma – Liz Essendine

At the recent 65th Evening Standard Theatre Awards Andrew Scott was named Best Actor for his performance in this Matthew Warcus production of Noël Coward’s Present Laughter that had a limited run at London’s The Old Vic during last summer. Now thanks to National Theatre Live cinemas in the UK and elsewhere in the world have had a chance to see why Scott’s tour de force thoroughly deserved this recognition.

Noël Coward admitted that his 1942 comedy was autobiographical, and he had caricatured himself in the egomaniacal Garry Essendine who is on the eve of touring Africa in a series of plays. He is also head of ‘the firm’ which consists of a wife he is separated from, secretary, valet, housekeeper, manager, producer, as well as, hangers on such as an aspiring young actress and an obsessed fan from Uckfield. Many of them are based on those in Coward’s own inner circle and Garry is shown striving to placate them all whilst dealing with a perceived mid-life crisis having recently turned forty.

In 1976 the much-revered Sir Peter Hall wrote ‘what a wonderful play it would be if – as Coward must have wanted – all those love affairs were about homosexuals’. When Coward wrote Present Laughter it was not possible to show real-life gay relationships on the West End – or any? – stage – and it was necessary to transmogrify them as onstage straight ones. With Warcus’s simple gender-swap the original Joanna Lyppiatt becomes Joe! This allows Garry to be seduced by his agent’s husband and we now explicitly see what Coward could only subliminally imply in the 1940s. In fact, Warcus and Scott turn Garry from – I guess? – Coward’s rakish, urban, creation into a thin-skinned, discontented, needy, man-child suffering latent Peter Pan Syndrome. That he is – as he readily admits – a ‘lost boy’ is emphasised by his first entrance in piratical Neverland-style fancy dress and his almost total reliance on the adults around him to make his life go smoothly.

More importantly in this ‘take’ on the character Scott’s diva-ish Garry seems bored with fame and all the parties, partners and pampering that it offers. Is it this hedonistic lifestyle that particularly bores him leading Garry to readily submit to Joe’s desire for him when there has been little previous suggestion that he has bi or homosexual inclinations? I didn’t think of it at the time and only afterwards began to appreciate Scott’s performance as a homage to the incomparable Kenneth Williams, who by his own admission based a use of language, as well as, his erudition, and probably his haughty mien, on Coward. Whether Garry is preening his Byronic – supposedly thinning – hair, or reciting Shelley, or sneering at those he considers unworthy of his talent, or railing at perceived misfortune, Scott appears – in hindsight – to channel elements of Williams’s persona.

This Garry Essendine knows who he is and has no need to apologies for anything he does. However, because he is wary of how those around him might take advantage of any hint of vulnerability, he is determined for his true feelings to remain mostly well-hidden.

On the eve of the foreign tour – that Garry really isn’t that keen on – his life descends into the perpetual motion of a French farce. Everything takes place in set designer Rob Howell’s lavish, art deco studio apartment that reeks of the trappings of success which Garry’s stage career has afforded him. The phone is ringing constantly, people – expected or unexpected – are always at his front door, and as Garry increasingly loses self-control lovers are farcically bundled into one spare room, and unwanted hangers on into another, only to re-emerge, as anticipated, at the least opportune moment. At one point Garry is even shown frantically pirouetting as his life goes into its own tailspin.

The charismatic Scott tended to overshadow a strong ensemble and while it was ok for him to be OTT in the leading role, I was a little surprised how much overacting and shouting he was surrounded with. Kitty Archer as the pushy, young actress Daphne Stillington was a little screechy; Sophie Thompson was his longsuffering – yet totally devoted – Scottish secretary, Monica Reid, yet occasionally bawled her way through some glorious put-downs of her boss; and Abdul Salis – as Garry’s manager Morris Dixon (who is also in love with Joe) – was another with little volume control. Best of the rest were Lisa Sadovy in the scene-stealing dual roles of the Swedish spiritualist housekeeper and wheelchair-bound Lady Saltburn; Joshua Hill brought an unforced charm to the cocksure valet Fred; and Luke Thallon was engaging as Garry’s eternally optimistic and persistent stalker, Roland Maule, who grips Garry’s hand so tightly that when he eventually wrenches it away he plunges it into a jug of water.

As Garry’s primary love interests Enzo Cilenti had the sort of suave Latin matinee idol looks that a conflicted Lothario on the cusp of middle age might find appealing. Indira Varma’s classy and exquisitely nuanced Liz, the ex, spends most of the play on the sidelines observing all the toing and froing; though when Garry ‘succeeds’ in driving everyone away from him – probably only for the time being – it is Liz who is faithfully there for the rather bittersweet denouement. Present Laughter was originally to be called Sweet Sorrow and Liz is shown to be willing to pick up the pieces of Garry’s shattered ego to ensure ‘the firm’ prevails.

Jim Pritchard

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For more about what is one at The Old Vic click here.

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