Present Laughter: Theatre Review

Rating: 5

By Georgina Brown

‘I do hope you are warm enough,’ says Monica, Garry Essendine’s secretary, dangling a discarded stocking in front of a bleary blonde who is protesting too much about having lost her latch key and having stayed overnight in Garry’s apartment. 

Deliciously funny Sophie Thompson gives Monica a Scottish accent and a briskly ironic tone, making it clear that she knows exactly what Daphne, dressed as a fairy, is up to. She has no illusions about Garry either, having worked for the famed matinee idol for 17 years. Tripping over the likes of Daphne the morning-after-the-night-before among the debris of champagne bottles is evidently routine. Garry describes her as ‘churning through life like some old warship’, which captures Thompson’s Monica – to a tee. Nothing fazes Monica, nor undermines her maternal indulgence of this overgrown man-child. 

Minutes later Garry appears, hungover, still in fancy dress, his piratical eye-patch askew, boasting that ‘everyone worships me, it’s nauseating’. Actually, he laps it up. Being the centre of attention is his raison d’être, if somewhat exhausting.

Andrew Scott – show-stealing as Moriarty in Sherlock, scorching as the ‘hot priest’ in Fleabag – is in mesmerising form in Matthew Warchus’s stunning revival of Noël Coward’s sparkling 1942 play. This great Scott is dishy, charismatic, witty, egomaniacal, ridiculously and riotously histrionic, with a talent for shameless ‘peacocking’. Garry’s separated wife, Liz, refers to his bisexual bad-boy behaviour as ‘scampering about’, with a distinct tut. But in spite of being no longer a couple, Liz (a cool Indira Varma), in super-stylish palazzo pants, remains frequently present and emotionally attached. 

What makes Scott’s Garry revelatory is that while he struts exquisitely he also frets eloquently, nailing the lonely, lost boy beneath the Peter Pan posturing. In a thoughtful programme note, Warchus points out that Garry’s surname, Essendine, is an anagram for ‘neediness’. I hadn’t noticed. A play I had always thought light as meringue emerges as a shrewd study of celebrity, revealing the identity crisis which invariably haunts stars and the weird obsessive neediness which turns fans into stalkers.  

In one scene a fan and wannabe playwright (creepily intense Luke Thallon) visits Garry and almost swoons when he shakes his idol’s hand. When he lets go, a wincing Garry plunges his hand into a jug of water, to cool it down and wash off the sweat. A brilliant touch. In another gender-bending twist, one of Garry’s admirers, Joanna, has become Joe (Enzo Cilenti) which deftly restores the play’s original shock factor. 

Handsomely staged on an Art Deco, fan-shaped set with ample doors to manage the frantic farce the play ultimately becomes, the laughter is more present than ever. As is the melancholy that comes after. 

Old Vic, London SE1 until 10 August: 0344-871 7628,