Theatre review: Present Laughter

Changing genders works well in this up-dated version of Noel Coward


A way has been found to rejuvenate classics. All you have to do, it seems, is change the gender of the characters. This effect is very different from changing the gender of the actor playing the role, which has been done from Sarah Bernhardt’s Hamlet to Glenda Jackson’s Lear. No, changing the gender of the character can, it turns out, make the familiar seem brand new.

Nicholas Hytner has done it with his joyous version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and now Matthew Warchus has done it with this cracking production of Noël Coward’s 1939 comedy Present Laughter.

It stars the infinitely watchable Andrew Scott — recent star of Fleabag in which he played a reluctantly celibate priest — as matinee idol Garry Essendine. And no, Garry was not originally written by Coward as a woman. But all his lovers were. At least, the ones we see. And here the key tryst between Essendine and the spouse to one of his close-knit producer friends is not now with with Joanne, but with the debonair seducer Joe (Enzo Cilenti). As if turning the title into a pun, Warchus accentuates the sense of an updated play with pop music from the much more recent past. But crucially the work in sprit and language remains the same.

The action is set in the sensually furnished studio of Essendine’s house with a constant flow of human traffic — not just the owner’s lovers, but his family of servants and associates, and the stable emotional anchors of his wife Liz (Indira Varma) and loyal assistant Monica (Sophie Thompson). And both are terrific. Varma has a poise as cool and stylish as the room’s art deco design and Thompson’s Monica manages to be non-judgemental and chiding at the same time. There are also terrific turns by Kitty Archer as the 24-year-old lover who Essendine attempts to leave with declarations of eternal love, and particularly Luke Thallon as a stalker fan liberated by Essendine’s sexual charisma from the constraints that go with living in Uckfield.

Fo those who know the play, the way Coward’s sophisticates end up being trapped in a door-slamming farce is still a surprise. But for today’s audience the sense of how transgressive Cowards original play must have felt has been lost forever. Except here it has been revived, especially in the scene in which Essendine and Joe disrobe each other while disagreeing with each other’s opinion on art.

Crucially, the scene feels like the one Coward would have preferred to have written if only he could have. Meanwhile. Essendine’s extravagant vanity could so easily irritate were it not for the knowing way Scott’s version of the role parodies his own excesses. It is a performance of rare emotional intelligence, one that suggests that there is nothing of which you can accuse Scott’s character that he doesn’t already know himself.

As for changing the sex of roles, it is amazing how this trick chimes so resonantly with today’s gender politics. Maybe we’ll tire of it. But not yet.

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