[Tickets gifted in exchange for a review]
Andrew Scott seems very much the man of the moment, both on screen and on stage. Before he was the Hot Priest in Fleabag, he was the unnervingly charming-yet-sinister Moriarty in BBC’s Sherlock. You may also have spotted him in Black Mirror, Pride and His Dark Materials.
But enough of me listing his filmography; I’m not IMDB.
One of his latest incarnations sees him as Garry Essendine in Noel Coward’s Present Laughter, which was at the Old Vic in London earlier this year. Not being a capital-dweller myself, it’s one of those shows I never thought I’d be able to catch. Fortunately for me, The National Theatre was kind enough to take pity on us poor souls in other parts of the country, and screened it as part of its National Theatre Live programme.
I’ve waxed lyrical about NTLive before when I reviewed Fleabag, Macbeth and Follies, so I shan’t go on, but I am grateful that I was able to see this much-praised production from the comfort of my own city.
I arrived at Nuffield Southampton Theatres City venue – the location of my live screening! – with no knowledge of the play itself other than the rave reviews it had.
And so, a brief outline of the plot, in case you are ever in that same position.
A week or so before he heads off on a tour of Africa, much-adored actor Garry Essendine finds himself at the center of a whirlwind of a series of almost farcical events and relationships that seem to be trying to make his final few weeks at home as difficult as possible. With so many people vying for his attention, adoration, and approval, and his own identity called into question, we are invited to watch as the pandemonium unfolds.
Directed by Matthew Warchus, this production is as rich and extravagant as its protagonist. The costumes and set ooze glamour, as does the hedonistic and lavish lifestyle that is shared on the stage. The action does not move from Garry’s apartment, but this by no means indicates a stagnant performance; in fact, there is so much going on that it’s almost exhausting just watching it all!
Andrew Scott is simply sensational as Garry Essendine; he is without a doubt a drama queen through and through, and his melodramatic reactions are performed with excellent comic timing and some hugely entertaining facial expressions. This man is larger than life and Scott is perfect in the role.
The blurred edges between acting and reality – between staged and natural reactions – are continually questioned, and Garry’s own authentic self is scrutinised time and time again. This not only offers a wonderful exploration of performativity but also an opportunity for Scott to demonstrate his strength as an actor in divulging a depth of character.
While this whole production is riotous fun, there are some tender moments which reveal true feelings beneath the bravado. Garry’s parting moment with his secretary Monica (Sophie Thompson) and his breakdown in the penultimate scene are truly moving.
While Scott is clearly the star, the entire cast is perfection, too. Sophie Thompson’s Monica is brilliantly dry and all-knowing, and Luke Thallon as the over-emotional and excessive Roland Maule is uproariously funny. Garry’s interactions with blonde bombshell and devotee Daphne Stillington (played by Kitty Archer) are also priceless.
The whole plot involves so much seduction and so many secrets that it quickly becomes full of slapstick moments and farce, but this is by no means a ridiculous production. It is sharp, gorgeous, and – despite being rather lengthy – a real rollercoaster.
There’s plenty crammed into the show. On top of the idea of acting and genuine identity, homosexuality and fame are also addressed; there is real depth to the ‘funny’, here.
At the start of each NTLive screening, there is a commentary on what you are about to watch. Seeing the actors themselves explore the themes within their production is fascinating. The fact that this play was written and performed at a time when homosexual acts in the UK were criminalised, for example, is incredibly pertinent, and worth remembering as the action unfolds.
It’s a joy when something that is advertised as a comedy really does have you laughing out loud, and it’s even more impressive when the production is so good that the hilarity translates through the screen, too.
Though this production is no longer running at The Old Vic, if you have the chance to see it – either on stage or on screen with National Theatre Live – I urge you to do so. Present Laughter is a rambunctious, sassy and salty delight, and I am so glad I didn’t miss out.