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.