Matthew Warchus’s dazzling production of ‘Present Laughter’ at the Old Vic shines a light on Coward’s comic genius, whilst exploring its rich and dark underbelly. Originally entitled ‘Sweet Sorrow’, it captures both the vanity and desperation of the character Noel Coward wrote for himself: matinee idol, Gary Essendine. Given the nations current post-Fleabag obsession with Andrew Scott, the casting couldn’t have been more perfect.

Rob Howell’s magnificent Art Deco style set is the first treat. And when Scott staggers from the bedroom, half dressed with a pirate patch over one eye to discover last nights mistake dressed up as a fairy awaiting him, the audience are instantly wooed by his delicious grimace. Scott spreads his wings with Essendine, giving a comic performance that neither his tortured Hamlet (Almeida) nor charming priest could prepare us for. ‘Everybody worships me – it’s nauseating’ he complains. Scott exquisitely captures the petulant star enraptured by his own performances but burdened by an eternal hang-over and a lingering sense of regret.

Indira Varma as his languid ex-wife is a perfect foil, with her under-stated wit and sharp perception. And Sophie Thompson as his devoted private secretary can stretch the comic possibilities of a single line like nobody else. The dynamic between Essendine and an unstable young dramatist played by Luke Thallon has moments of eye-watering comedy. I could go on because quite frankly, I haven’t laughed so much at the theatre in years.

But there is more to this production than verbal wit and a masterclass in farce. It’s extraordinary how current ‘Present Laughter’ feels, given that the production is in period costume with only a gender swap in one of the couples. I say only, when in fact the decision to swap Joanna for Joe (played by Enzo Cilenti) is crucial as it means that Essendine has both male and female lovers, with his male affair being central to the plot. Far from being a theatrical experiment, one imagines that the decision takes us even closer to Coward’s world. It’s highly likely that he was translating many of the male lovers of his world into women to make them acceptable for the stage at a time when homosexuality was illegal. In the hands of this superb cast, the result is fresh and searing insight into the heart of Coward’s work. Not to be missed.

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