When it was announced that Andrew Scott would be returning to the West End in London for another play, I was sold before I even checked which character he would portray in whichever play he was going be part of. I, like many others, have been following Scott’s career since he first appeared as criminal genius James (Jim) Moriarty in the BBC hit show Sherlock in 2009. Since then, I’ve seen Scott in various plays, movies, and TV series, most recently in the brilliant second season of Fleabag and of course in “Smithereens,” one of the new episodes in Black Mirror. So far, Scott has played a lot of tragic, intense characters — with a few exceptions — on and off stage. So it was a delightful discovery to see him be announced in a production of Noël Coward’s Present Laughter in one of London’s most famous theatres, The Old Vic.
Present Laughter is a comedy written by Coward in the late 1930s and has been performed frequently since its debut in 1942. It deals with the story of an eccentric actor called Garry Essedine, who is sought after by many women and is in a constant conflict between his craft and his personal life overlapping. The play tells the story of a star’s uncertainty in his mid-life crisis, someone who is surrounded by people living off his fame and not taking him seriously at the same time. Throughout the play, Garry not only has to try and save his declining career, but he also has to juggle his past and present relationships in the face of change and older age.
The Old Vic’s creative team have added a minimal but effective twist to the 20th century comedy: they have changed the gender of one of the roles in the play. In the original version, both the first and second act of the play begin with one of Garry’s conquests waking up in his spare room after a night together. The difference in the 2019 staging version is that one of the characters became Joe instead of Joanna, giving the play a different and important direction. Because now, Garry is not only a struggling actor, he’s also a man completely open and comfortable about his bisexuality. His affair with Joe is not mentioned or treated in any other way than his affairs with women in the play, normalising a topic that might not usually be addressed in such a way.
Finding words to describe this interpretation of Present Laughter is difficult, because one can only find so many synonyms for “funny,” “hilarious,” or “entertaining.” From the minute I sat down until the final applause, I only ever stopped laughing for a couple of seconds. The comedic timing and dynamic of the ensemble were magnificent and left no room for awkward pauses, but it had to leave room for long stretches of laughter and even rounds of sporadic applause after a particularly well-landed joke. (This was a first for me, and I’ve been seeing plays in the West End for a while.) For me personally, Sophie Thompson as Miss Erikson, the secretary, was one of the absolute highlights of this production. Her manner of speaking, her dry humour, and her quick-fire reactions had me in tears of laugher multiple times throughout the play.
Of course, Andrew Scott will not go unmentioned. He is one of the most talented actors I’ve ever seen on stage, and he did not disappoint this time. The role of Garry was perfect for him; he gave his all to show the struggle of a middle-aged man with an inflated ego and a crisis of age and trust in his companions at the same time. He managed to be heartbreaking and hilarious at the same time by showing vulnerability in the scenes with Joe, especially. As mentioned before, male bisexual representation is not often shown on stage. But Scott and Enzo Cilenti (who you may know from Luther or Game Of Thrones) managed to portray a softness and romance where the audience felt almost intrusive watching them. And although showing the struggle of queer people is important too, it was heartwarming to see queer romance represented and portrayed in the same way that heterosexual romance was portrayed in this play.
Overall, Present Laughter was an absolute joy to watch. The actors, creative team, and other folks responsible for the production have succeeded in giving a comedy from the previous century not only a modern twist, but an important message regarding representation and modern society. It’s always wonderful to see a group of actors work so seamlessly and effortlessly together to create a work of art, but this really exceeded any expectations I had before actually witnessing it in person.
Thankfully, even if you have no possibility to see the play in London (it will be playing until August 10 and tickets are on sale on The Old Vic’s website), you will still be able to experience this play. National Theatre Live will bring the play to cinemas worldwide in November this year, so make sure to check your local cinema for screenings and possible encores. Even if you’re not usually into theatre or plays, I cannot recommend this one enough.
Finally, when I left The Old Vic after the performance, the building was lit in rainbow colours (it was one day before the London pride parade), and this display felt especially significant after seeing this play. We still have such a long way to go regarding queer representation, but we are definitely one step closer with this production reflecting on fame, love, and loneliness in 2019.