London Theater Review: ‘Present Laughter’ Starring Andrew Scott

Andrew Scott is magnificent as Noel Coward's shimmering comedy comes out of the closet.

Kitty Archer, Enzo Cilenti, Joshua Hill, Abdul Salis, Liza Sadovy, Andrew Scott, Luke Thallon, Sophie Thompson, Suzie Toase, Indira Varma.

2 hours 45 minutes

Noel Coward’s plays are coming out of the closet. The ménage-a-trois in “Design for Living” — Gilda, Otto and Leo, the original “thruple” — have long stopped masquerading as the best of friends. Now “Present Laughter” gets its turn. With a single, seismic gender-switch, so that aging actor Garry Essendine (Andrew Scott) hops into bed with his agent’s husband, director Matthew Warchus makes explicit something Coward could only imply — and the results are revelatory.

Essendine is, usually, a thoroughbred cad and a ham: a conceited old-school actor-manager lording over a small team of long-suffering assistants and associates while staving off the agonies of aging with a string of meaningless one-night stands. Protective of his bohemian crew, he is also predatory, lofty and, underneath it all, deeply alone. Here, in Scott’s virtuosic turn, he becomes much more besides — bisexual, yes, but more than that: queer.

Scott’s Essendine remains ridiculous — vain as a prize peacock, with paper-thin skin — but he’s heartbreaking too. He flutters his fingers when reciting the Romantics, as if spinning Shelley’s words out of thin air, and he’s forever pushing his hair back to keep his thinning crown concealed. He is, as he admits, a “lost boy,” first seen emerging from too-little sleep in the remnants of Neverland-themed fancy dress, and he’s reliant on the adults in his employ.

The irony is that, determined to live in the moment, whizzing between parties and partners, the middle-aged actor becomes stuck in his own French farce, keeping plates spinning and solving problems to keep his life’s show on the road. As he bundles Kitty Archer’s pushy, posh actress into one spare room and Luke Thallon’s enraptured young playwright into another, Scott ends up turning circles as if chasing his own tail. It’s as if in seeking constant novelty, Garry’s stuck on repeat and, the second he stops, it all falls apart. Not for nothing does Coward start each act the morning after the night before.

Scott’s Essendine, however, seems determined to escape reality — and his sexual identity, his queerness, is at the heart of that. He lives an alternative lifestyle, at one remove from mainstream society, and Rob Howell’s design locates him in a loft apartment so louche it’s positively otherworldly: glittery violet walls, lacey white curtains and elegant impractical poufs instead of sofas. There’s a gauche, gold sculpture in the space a clock ought to go. It has the air of a spaceship or some heavenly cloud. When guests turn up, there’s half a sense that they’ve teleported in from elsewhere.

It’s inherently theatrical — a constructed space that sits on another plane of reality — and it’s bound up in camp. That allows Garry a new lease on life. Still vain, still pompous and still sharp with his staff, he gains a self-awareness, even a self-mockery, in Scott’s hands. Everything he says comes couched in quotation marks: the insults he lobs at his long-suffering secretary (a no-nonsense Sophie Thompson) are laced with affection just as the compliments he pays his callers are barbed with silent contempt. Everything’s coded, carried in its inflections, and everything’s ambiguous. It’s all an act, as Garry freely admits, but behind his mask of absolute insincerity he can, when he wants to, be utterly sincere.

Those confessional moments can be quietly devastating, and Scott lets Garry’s desperate isolation, his discomfort with the world, shine out of his sad smile. As the wife he’s not yet gotten around to divorcing, Indira Varma, sees through him and sticks by his side: a constant, unspoken crutch that, right at the end, Garry reaches out for. It lifts a deceptively light and ludicrous comedy that, 80 years on, has retained its fizz, into something delicately profound.

Popular on Variety

London Theater Review: 'Present Laughter' Starring Andrew Scott

Old Vic Theatre, London; 1067 seats; £65 each, $82 top. Opened June 26, 2019. Reviewed June 26. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Production: An Old Vic production of a play in two acts by Noel Coward.

Creative: Directed by Matthew Warchus. Design, Rob Howell; lighting, Tim Lutkin and Hugh Vanstone; sound, Simon Baker; casting, Jessica Ronane CDG.

Cast: Kitty Archer, Enzo Cilenti, Joshua Hill, Abdul Salis, Liza Sadovy, Andrew Scott, Luke Thallon, Sophie Thompson, Suzie Toase, Indira Varma.

More Legit

  • The Inheritance review

    'The Inheritance' Announces Broadway Cast

    After an Olivier-winning run in London, “The Inheritance” is gearing up for its Broadway debut. The two-part epic has set the cast for its transfer from the West End to the Great White Way. John Benjamin Hickey, Paul Hilton, Samuel H. Levine, Andrew Burnap and Kyle Soller are among the cast members reprising their roles [...]

  • Patrick Page, Amber Grey, Eva Noblezada,

    'Hadestown' Announces 2020 National Tour

    ‘Hadestown’, the eight-time Tony award winning Broadway musical, is set for a national tour in 2020. The show will stop in more than 30 cities including Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New Orleans, and more. More Reviews Locarno Film Review: 'Vitalina Varela' Locarno Film Review: 'Instinct' The musical is a stage adaptation of the Greek [...]

  • Jake Gyllenhaal

    Listen: Why Jake Gyllenhaal Is His 'Best Self' in the Theater

    Looking for the best possible version of Jake Gyllenhaal? You’ll find it onstage, according to the actor himself. Listen to this week’s podcast below: More Reviews Locarno Film Review: 'Vitalina Varela' Locarno Film Review: 'Instinct' “I am my best self when I’m working in the theater,” Gyllenhaal said on the latest episode Stagecraft, Variety’s theater [...]

  • Photo: Jeremy Daniel

    'The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical' Gets Broadway Run

    “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” is Broadway bound. The musical adaptation of the franchise about a teenager who discovers he’s the son of Poseidon hits the Great White Way on Sept. 20 ahead of an Oct. 16 opening night. It comes on the heels of an extensive, nationwide tour that took the show [...]

  • Tom Sturridge Jake Gyllenhaal

    Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge Celebrate 'Sea Wall/A Life' With Star-Studded Opening Night

    A star-studded audience looked on as Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge returned to the stage for their double monologue performance in “Sea Wall/A Life.” Theater-goers and celebs including Anne Hathaway, Tom Hiddleston and John Mulaney gathered in Manhattan’s Hudson Theatre for opening night, celebrating a show tackling grief, birth and death through the eyes of [...]

  • Bat Out of Hell review

    Off Broadway Review: 'Bat Out of Hell'

    No one has ever accused Jim Steinman of subtlety. The composer behind Meat Loaf’s 1977 “Bat Out of Hell” (more than 43 million albums sold worldwide) and 1993’s “Bat Out of Hell II: Back into Hell” (five and six times platinum in the UK and US) has forever trafficked in a boldly theatrical brand of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content