Review: Present Laughter, National Theatre

Present Laughter, the Noël Coward play about a middle aged matinée idol, arrives at the Lyttelton in a new National Theatre production led by Howard Davies. I was quite excited to see it, as I have not seen that much of Coward’s work on the stage at all and had heard wonderful things about Alex Jennings’ performance as Garry Essendine.

The self-centred Garry, an actor, cannot live without the constant affection of those around him whether onstage or off-. He regularly enjoys the amorous attentions of many of his fans but finds himself is trapped in a tug of war between two young women, his estranged wife (with whom he gets on just super now they no longer live together), and a besotted aspiring writer. As Essendine prepares to go to Africa on tour they all throw themselves at him, in their own eccentric ways.

Not being familiar with the play meant that I had no preconceptions as to what it was going to be like or any knowledge as to what effect the revisions would have, but even I could tell that they were overplaying the point that we were on the brink of World War II and that this way of living is severely under threat, doomed even. But this just isn’t what plays out in front of us: no matter how directors might try to find melancholic depths, this is first and foremost a ripping comedy.

Without a really strong cast, I imagine this is could easily have become quite a tiresome experience, but fortunately, there’s some topnotch performances here. Alex Jennings is brilliant as the peacock-proud Garry, a masterful display of comic timing but underlaid with a deep sadness; Sarah Woodward is genius as his long-serving, long-suffering secretary; Lisa Dillon as the sexpot and Amy Hall’s groupie are also both good if treated a little unkindly by the playwright. I also liked Pip Carter’s Roland Maule, an overly earnest wannabe playwright with a huge gay crush on Garry.

It really does look amazing: the split level penthouse apartment set looks luxurious and Jennings’ performance holds the audience’s attention effortlessly from his shiny new dressing gown to his razor sharp delivery. Supported by a magnificent ensemble which largely rises above the limitations of the directorial choices, this was a great introduction to this play for me and particularly to Alex Jennings.

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