REVIEW OF TELECAST OF NATIONAL THEATRE PRODUCTION
Present Laughter isone of Noe Coward’s best comedies and is centered on the life of a matineeidol, Garry Essendine. He is a supremely successful theatre actor in 1930’sLondon. Essendine is flamboyant, egocentric, outrageously popular and pursuedassiduously by women. He is partly aself-portrait of Coward but there is a small inaccuracy. Coward was ahomosexual and in the original play Essendine is vigorously heterosexual.
Director Matthew Warchus has decided to set the record and the play straightin his production at the Old Vic by revamping the plot and presenting Essendinea practicing homosexual, perhaps bisexual. Needless to say, he takes someliberties with the text to do that.
In addition to his household staff, Essendine (Andrew Scott) has a wife,Liz (Indira Varma) from whom he is separated and three friends. His householdstaff includes Monica Reed, his efficient secretary who has a high humanquotient and is played superbly by Sophie Thompson. He also has the amoralbutler Fred (Joshua Hill), an eccentric house keeper in Miss Ericson, overplayedby Liza Sadovy who also becomes the even more eccentric and wheel chair-boundLady Saltburn.
In the original play, Essendine’s friend Joanna is married to Henry, hasan affair with Morris and seduces Garry in his posh apartment. She is found inhis apartment the morning after the night before to hilarious effect as shetries to conceal what had happened.
In Warchus’s version Joanna (Enzo Cilenti) becomes Joe who is Helen’s(Suzie Toase) partner but is having an affair with Morris (Abdul Salis) and isin love and having an affair with Garry. Warchus does not shy from explicitphysical contact between the men and, if nothing else, the play has theauthenticity, we presume, it would have had if homosexuality was not onlyspurned but was a criminal offence when the play was written.
Coward’s homosexuality was known among his friends but he did not daredisclose it openly for good reason. In 1953 the great John Gielgud wasconvicted of a homosexual encounter in a public washroom.
Scott as Essendine is expected to be flamboyant and overact. As hehimself admits, it is impossible to tell when he is acting and when he is not.The problem with Scott is that he overacts at overacting. Essendine is supposedto be self-conscious about aging and about losing some hair. Scott is muscular(Warchus makes sure we see that), very youthful and certainly not losing anyhair.
Many of the characters in the play are in extremis or driven to it by Garry. His wife Liz is calmly andwonderfully funny. Luke Thalion as the lunatic playwright Roland Maule ishilarious and Kitty Archer as the would-be actress Daphne is entertaining.
Present Laughter isa superb light comedy. Changing it into a homosexual one may be of someinterest as reflecting Coward’s sexuality but we are not watching a documentaryabout the author’s life. This is a display of directorial freedom that does notmake the play better or funnier. Sometimes leaving what is good enough alone isgood enough.
Present Laughter by Noel Coward ina production by the National Theatre played originally at the Old Vic, Londonand was shown on December 4, 2019 at select Cineplex Cinemasacross Canada. For more information: www.cineplex.com/events