Wednesday 7 August 2019

Present Laughter at the Old Vic, or, Acceptable Revisions?

Note: This is a belated review of the performance on Thursday 25th July 2019.

Like buses you wait ages for a revival of a work, then two come along in quick succession. This is a much stronger production of Coward's play than the disappointing Chichester version last summer. Andrew Scott is outstanding in the title role. But it is not a flawless evening.

The highlight of the evening is unquestionably Andrew Scott's Garry Essendine. He's a commanding, charismatic stage presence. It's completely believable that he's been packing theatres for years - whenever he's on stage it's almost impossible not to watch him. Yet at the same time Scott is aware of the need, in a way that Rufus Hound wasn't at Chichester, for a distinction between Essendine's on-stage and off-stage character. There are a number of fine, subtle moments when Scott dials the energy, the forcefulness right back to reveal a touching, believable vulnerability. In particular, a tiny moment when his wife Liz has clearly rung off abruptly caught at my heart.

Director Matthew Warchus's main intervention is to make explicit certain latent homosexual aspects of the text. There's clearly licence in that text to make Essendine bisexual - the lines about the now ex-naval officer in the opening scene most obviously - and Roland Maule's fascination has a barely veiled sexual charge. Warchus takes matters further by switching the genders of Henry and Joanna (Essendine's producer and his wife) to Helen and Joe. Even in the National's fine production with Alex Jennings (still my benchmark for this play) I wasn't convinced by Joanna's seduction of Essendine. Turning it into a love scene between two closeted homosexuals makes it touching, suggestive and finally convincing in a way that the original, at least in the two productions I've seen, struggles with. But elsewhere the switch is not without its problems. This version never succeeded in convincing me that there had ever been anything between Helen and Joe - the former's indignation in the penultimate scene was not believable.

Warchus also, and more problematically in my view, tampers with the end of the play. I don't know the work so well that I could be certain of this while I was watching - but the bleakness (one member of my party suggested we were supposed to think Essendine might really be about to throw himself out of a window as he has earlier threatened to do) contradicted my recollection of the ending in previous productions. It turns out that Warchus has cut things here - critically Essendine's line to his estranged wife Liz "You're not coming back to me...I'm coming back to you" and the two of them then sneaking off together. Warchus it seemed to me, wanted to play up the idea of Essendine as tortured by his closeted state and being essentially forced back into it by Liz but here he is, in my view, departing significantly from the play as written. If you have to do that to make your interpretation work then your interpretation hasn't.

Next to Scott the rest of the ensemble is a bit uneven. Indira Varma's Liz becomes subtler and stronger as the evening goes on, and her interactions with Scott increase. In her final scene Sophie Thompson (Monica) finally realises that less is more and her exchanges with Essendine here are another touching moment - but earlier her Scottish accent (at least I think that was the intention) is all over the place, and she overacts - booming and overemphasising lines. Enzo Cilenti (Joe) gives a lovely turn in the seduction scene but is not as effective elsewhere. Luke Thallon's Roland doesn't erase memories of the brilliant Pip Carter at the National. There's fine work from Joshua Hill as Fred, particularly in his interactions with Essendine - the little routine by which money changes hands is a clever piece of a business.

In sum, Andrew Scott is mesmerising. The evening is often very funny and in places moving. Very much worth catching if not perhaps the absolute triumph suggested by some of the reviews.

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