Jelena Sofronijevic reviews

National Theatre Live: Present Laughter

Light comedy actor Garry Essendine is drowning. Notes of adoration pour from his lettertrays, the weight of his audiences’ expectations bears heavy, and he’s positively ‘bulging with confidences’ – the closeted skeletons of his theatre crew. It’s terribly lonely, being so adored.

Present Laughter – originally titled Sweet Sorrow – exposes the underlying vulnerability of narcissistic theatrical types, unravelling their amusing webs of scandal. Farce-fanatics rejoice - it is purely decadent melodrama. Andrew Scott’s Essendine is a petulant child, crawling and scowling with infantile resolve (despite his age – don’t ask). Yet, his charm – and swooning recitations of Shelley – earn him the affections of his peers, resulting in some tantalisingly loaded moments.

Noël Coward’s 1939 comedy is refreshed with subtle gender swaps, reinforcing the piece’s bohemian context. Coward’s script, thankfully, remains unchanged. Interwoven stories revolve around perpetually ‘misplaced’ latchkeys, perhaps a subtle nod to Waugh’s Vile Bodies – another satirical look on the ‘problems’ of post-war London’s BYTs. Scott races through tongue-twisting rants, the audience suspended until the final lick. In one particularly outrageous explosion, Essendine bolshily concludes that sex is only as satisfying as ‘an apple and a good book’.

Director Matthew Warchus orchestrates the carefully constructed chaos. Doors slam, phones ring, all in perfect comic timing. The troupe’s energy is catching, their volume ever-increasing – it’s a miracle they survive the near-three-hour shouting match.

Essendine might be the centerpiece - in his presence, even the meekest characters explode into emotional uproar – but the ensemble exacts control. Clever staging leaves Scott bound by the hands, or force fed sweet treats – subtle reminders of the actor’s stifled sentiments. Essendine’s long-suffering ‘warship’ secretary Monica Reed, played by Sophie Thompson, and tongue-in-cheek valet Fred, played by Joshua Hill, subtly rival Scott’s star.

Unapologetically indulgent, Present Laughter’s boundless energy guarantees a smirk to even the tightest-lipped of audiences.

Present Laughter was screened at the Festival Theatre on 26 January 2020 as part of National Theatre Live’s 10th Birthday Season.