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FringeReview UK 2019

Present Laughter

Old Vic NT Live

Genre: Comedy, LGBTQ, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Old Vic, The Cut Waterloo


Low Down

Directed by Matthew Warchus, with Set and Costumes by Rob Howell. Co-lighting’s by Tim Lutkin and Hugh Vanstone, Sound Design Simon Baker, Associate Director Joe Murphy.

For the Broadcast Team, Marcus Viner’s Director for Screen ensures some unobtrusively swept close-ups and constant steady roving. This production thrives on detailed comedy and Viner provides it all, so we’re mostly close in this production. Technical Presenter’s Julia Nelson and Christopher C Bretnall, Lighting Consultant Gemma O’Sullivan again masters those tricky moments of half-light, Sound Supervisor Conrad Fletcher might not have felt comfortable with the notch-down in the Odeon cinema. Script Supervisor Annie McDougall has – as with the work in the live show elsewhere – wrought small miracles of continuity.


A Present Laughter gone dreaded Chekhov through manic laughter. How does that work? As growing-forty-screaming matinee idol Gary Essendine puts it, Chekhov’s about ‘psychology’: or basically this is the most truthful production of a faux-farce that ends in tears. Good tears perhaps.

The last act by adjusting two simple stage directions releases everything about this play. And this isn’t about the felicitous gender reversals. They just help. Surely Coward would have loved it. When he got over his spat over those directions. Matthew Warchus’ revival is nothing short of revelatory, indeed definitive.

Andrew Scott often gives the performance of his life so far, but here he’s extraordinary. Whether beating himself up with his fists in a manically-hammed tantrum, or suddenly dropping to whispered desolation after so many acting ones, this Essendine betrays a vulnerability and capacity for tragic self-realisation far beyond thinning hairlines and receding starlets.

He’s helped by a cast of gritty satellites. Even the most adoring, like Kitty Archer’s Daphne Stillington shows a steelier resolve and delight, in Archer’s gleaning performance: she’s a bit like a Tamara de Lempicka painting with iron swarf curls. Her refusal to believe Essendine’s formulaic goodbye (she later interprets it as his true self) and overcomes her fainting-fit like a bowl of mercury when confronted with the truth about the taker of her latch-key, a polite way of putting it that in fact forms the design core of the set.

Luke Thallon’s Roland Maule all in browns like an accountant who’s terrifyingly missed his vocation is ahrdly lrds active though unlike some he doesn’t throw himself down and hug his idol’s legs, but does so with his voice. The terrible thing about Thallon like archer is you believe the core of him: he’s tragically invulnerable to his own truth.

Lisa Sadovy’s Miss Erikson is all iceberg movement and laconic answers from deep Swedenborg; her turn as Lady Saltburn (with that revelatory niece) on 1930s life-support would steal the show if Essendine would let her which of course he won’t.

Joshua Hill’s Fred too shows a far warmer relationship with Essendine, at one point taking his hand: there’s clearly a charge between both men despite Fred’s Doris and Fed emerges here more than a little tender for his family with Essendine its head. It might skew our notions of service in this post-Downton world but happily it lacks the sheer complacency of that formula and reveals depths of growth, detailed like everything else here.

Sophie Thompson’s Monica Reed is a different matter still. Joining forces with Essendine’s informally former wife Liz she’s seen as the embodiment of quietly admiring, tough-talking but devoted dragon. Thompson of course can do nothing like fade discreetly when not required to. Everything in her edged anger, whether dealing with latch-key lovers or lone Uckfield rangers like Maule. Or bigger game.

The moments she and Scott share show increasingly fro his casual put-downs at Liz’s gift for her, to an extraordinary response to Essendine’s desperate plea with her not to let him alone with loneliness. What Warchus opens up here are chasms of missed opportunities, unspoken tendresses and deep loss. Pure Chekhov. Thompson here though is only part of the pain.

Of the Essendine’s extended family are their backers. And here’s the twist: the roles of anxious Henry and vamp Joanna Lyppiat are reversed and it’s delicious. There’s Suzie Toase’s wonderfully trousered Helen Lyppiat with a long tie falling between her legs as she sits mannishly, legs spread like a petite Sumo wrestler. There’s nothing fragile in her amused then not amused inquisitions, and you’re not surprised.

So of course she’s married suave Enzo Cilenti’s Joe Lyppiat, who’s determined t make a conquest of Essendine, ad if not live with him, then certainly constellate round him closer than the orbit of Venus. As cultivated predator Cilenti’s delicious and you can see why Scott’s Essendine though seeing straight through his gambits is hooked by sex and challenge – and above all danger. And that includes a very tangible slap. Not on the back.

So that’s whom Abdul Salis’ Morris Dixon has fallen for, as the other Essendine frantically works out a rescue package. Salis breathes a fine panicky vulnerability that like great comedy teeters on tragedy which in this plot gets exploded in any case as everything comes out ad it’s not quite do desperate after all: for a couple of the family anyway. Having seen it this way, I wonder if we can ever quite go back to the original.

Indira Varama’s Liz Essendine rides to untangle and dispose of everyone. Whether in a breezy but never complacent coping, Varma edges comedy with an assurance that enver hints Connie from Fawlty Towrrs, the default coping mechanis that might have been inspired by this character and then returned to bite her in the bum. Varma will have none of it. She’s sexy, supremely self-aware, a master not a coper, capable as we find of understated, intense emotion.

Set and costumes by Rob Howell are stylish Art Deco to a T, all blue with a diagonal white swoop of curtains evoking – again – de Lempicka-stylisation, though softer, with that orange latch-key design centring like a motif or brand, with a central circular mega-pouffe, and other soft furnishings. Indeed it’s as if that other 1930s artist Dali had been at the set too, since everything’s a little soft-edged. The period dresses are almost edible. Co-lighting’s by Tim Lutkin and Hugh Vanstone, Sound Design Simon Baker with some noises off and later period music clips. ‘Will You Still Love Me tomorrow’ is thematically apt, though more loud signposting than apposite.

The end has to be seen. Seen after all the thrillingly-timed farce has been brought up to a new pitch. Normally the couple escape as Essendine silently gestures to various people hidden behind locked doors. Here though they’re all ushered out and the power of the last minutes’ farcical end is demolished. What Warchus – and Scott and Varma – bring instead is what’s really at stake. The conversation, normally so brisk and sotto voce as the couple elope as in Private Lives, is grounded in silences; an almost tragic awareness of the nature of their love. Outstanding.