Andrew Scott gives a virtuosic performance in Noël Coward’s imperishable 1943 comedy. He lends the hero, Garry Essendine, a mixture of twinkling charm and driving egomania characteristic of the kind of actor-manager Coward was portraying and possibly of the author himself. It is a richly funny performance even if Matthew Warchus’s production occasionally displays the frenzy that seems an ingredient of modern comedy. Scott’s Garry is, above all, a lost boy: a Peter Pan who has never fully grown up and who emerges from slumber sporting a piratical eyepatch and a waistcoat as if he had come from JM Barrie’s Neverland rather than dreamland. But Scott also wittily lapses into an outrageous theatricality to keep people at bay. He pouts and peacocks around in order to ward off unwanted lovers and importunate playwrights and to protect the little clique of chums that is essential to his wellbeing. As in Design for Living – in which Scott also starred at the Old Vic – Coward is writing about a bohemian world threatened by invasion from outsiders.
In the original, the threat comes from a predatory female called Joanna with whom Garry sleeps in order to neutralise her capacity to upset the apple cart. Joanna here becomes Joe in the formidable shape of Enzo Cilenti and I am in two minds about the gender-swap. It heightens the idea of Garry as a sexual chameleon with the built-in ambivalence of the matinee-idol. But, given that the knock-on effect of the switch is that three of the major characters are now bisexual, you wonder why Joe is seen as a menace to Garry’s tight little gang. There may be a hint of misogyny in Coward’s original but there is also more dramatic logic.
The chief joy, however, lies in watching Scott’s display of Garry’s boyish vanity. Accused of overacting, he beats himself about the face as if confirming the charge. Whenever mention is made of the Peer Gynt he was prevented from playing, Scott looks like a woebegone child deprived of a longed-for present. Funniest of all is his encounter with the playwright from Uckfield, Roland Maule, whom Luke Thallon invests with a lunging intensity. Prising his hand from Maule’s ferocious grasp, Scott dips it in a beaker of cooling water. But, while capturing Garry’s need to escape the clamorous demands of outsiders, Scott also has the orphaned look of stardom.
Indira Varma is excellent as Garry’s separated wife, Liz. Possibly because she is so experienced in Pinter, Varma lends precise words real weight so that when she accuses Garry of “scampering about” the charge hits home. Together Varma and Scott also lend the climax a rueful tenderness that explains why the play was originally entitled Sweet Sorrow. Some of the other acting is a bit overpitched and it struck me as gratuitous to have “a majestic but rather effusive society woman” in a wheelchair and on a saline drip. But Sophie Thompson makes Garry’s devoted secretary a shrewdly maternal figure, Joshua Hill is very good as a cocksure valet and, above all, there is the charismatic Scott who suggests that Garry is both the glorious sun around whom all these planets revolve and a figure of inviolable solitude.
• Present Laughter is at the Old Vic, London, until 10 August.