There’s irony in the fact that a play about a matinee idol, an archaic stage equivalent of a movie-star, who presumedly stars in light farces, is as profound and moving as it is. Last night, as it broadcast to cinemas nationwide, Matthew Warchus’ revival of Present Laughter proved that fame and idolisation is essentially the same today as it was 80 years ago. Even without the internet or social media, there will always be those who crave fame, and those who crave the famous.
Noel Coward’s play is set in the flat of Garry Essendine – the matinee idol mentioned above – who appears to live with his entourage of cleaning staff, agents, friends, lovers, and – absurdly – his estranged wife. Andrew Scott, star of Fleabag and Sherlock, brings so much energy to the role that he must burn off two-thousand calories a show. He flamboyantly jumps from sofa to couch and back again, crawls and rolls across the stage, and often dives into full-pelt sprints in the farcical moments – which make up most of the play.
Essendine, based loosely on Coward himself, falls into a popular character trope; spoiled, rich, famous and unsatisfied. Even his name is an anagram of “neediness”. From Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard to Andy Millman in Extras, drama frequently scrutinises the destructive aspiration for fame. The genius of Essendine is his openness about the whole thing – he knows he’s addicted to the fame-drug and he’s aware of its emptiness; “everyone worships me, it’s nauseating” he says in the first ten minutes. In finding fame, he yearns for more integrity – a few times he laments having never played Peer Gynt. But he’s just too fond of being everyone’s idol to let it go.
In the funniest moment of the play, he finds a new worshipper in the unlikeliest of characters. A young playwright called Roland Maule turns up at the flat, after Gary reluctantly agrees to read and discuss his play. After Gary expresses his disliking of the play, Roland slyly accuses him of being low-brow – of failing to grasp the potential of theatre, art, literature, and all the rest. The resulting rant from Gary – which Scott brings to life with manic gusto – brings Roland to a state of awe. After a silence, he gushes “I had no idea you were like this. You’re wonderful.” Gary looks bewildered at the consequence of his star-power.
It is easy to see homoerotic undertones in that scene – in fact, it’s hinted at through the entire script. But this production takes things one step further – a gender swap. Gary’s producer Henry Lyppiatt is now Helen, a no-nonsense aggressor played boisterously by Suzie Toase. Consequently, his wife Joanna is now Joe, a seductive cad played by Enzo Cilenti. Anyone who knows the script will wonder, as soon as they see Helen and hear references to Joe, how the gay scenes will play out later. The result is effective, but not wholly believable.
It is a good idea, and an admirable one at that. It’s no secret that Noel Coward was gay, and had he written Present Laughter for today’s audiences, he would undoubtedly have made one of Gary’s many flings a gay one. But in the plot, when Gary’s entourage discover that he’s sleeping with Helen’s husband, there are no references to the taboo nature of the affair. The actors commendably incorporate it into their facial expressions, but this isn’t quite enough. Even in a circle as bohemian as this one, it’s hard to believe that, in the 1930s, the shock would be at the affair, not the homosexuality.
While this element is hard to ignore, it hardly obscures the whole performance. It’s a manic farce but with poignancy and a heart – its original title was Sweet Sorrow. While Gary Essendine may feel like a fleeting matinee star, Noel Coward has written a timeless play, and this production proves that.