Sixty-five years after it was first staged in the West End, Noel Coward’s classic comedy Present Laughter received its National Theatre premiere last night (2 October 2007, previews from 25 September), opening in the NT Lyttelton, where it runs in repertory until 9 January 2008.

Multi award-winning NT stalwart Alex Jennings stars as the flamboyantly vain and devastatingly handsome and charismatic charmer Garry Essendine, a matinee idol who is suave, hedonistic and too old, says his wife, to be having numerous affairs. Garry’s line in harmless, infatuated debutantes is largely tolerated but playing closer to home is not. Just before he escapes on tour to Africa, the full extent of his misdemeanours is discovered. And all hell breaks loose.

Present Laughter was written in 1939 and, after a delay due to the outbreak of the Second World War, had its London premiere at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 1942, where Noel Coward himself starred in the lead role that was dangerously close to being autobiographical. Jennings is joined in the NT cast by Sara Stewart, Sarah Woodward, Lisa Dillon, Tim McMullan Pip Carter, Amy Hall, Frances Jeater, Tony Turner and Simon Wilson.

Present Laughter is directed by NT associate Howard Davies and designed by Tim Hatley with costumes by Jenny Beavan. The team previously collaborated on the multi award-winning 2001 production of Coward’s Private Lives, starring Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, which transferred from the West End to Broadway.

In a mixed bag of overnight reviews, it was hard to find a consensus about the overall merits of either Coward’s play or Davies’ production of it. However, critics did, almost universally, admire Alex Jennings’ “virtuoso” lead performance as Garry Essendine, calling him “gripping” and “superb”. And, in supporting performances, more joy was found care of Sarah Woodward and Sara Stewart’s “strong” performances which keeps the production going after a “lack-lustre” beginning.

  • Michael Coveney on (two stars) - “In no other play did Noel Coward define the public image of himself more than he did in Present Laughter, which he wrote in 1939 and appeared in three years later after a delay caused by the outbreak of war … Alex Jennings is a superb technical actor, but he seems embarrassed by his own histrionics; the crucial thing about Gary, his glamorous sex appeal, is scuffed over with a blustery indifference. Gary should not resemble a tramp with a bad haircut and an ugly dressing gown worn over day clothes that might have come from an Oxfam shop. He’s a matinee idol, a god, though one with expensively shod feet of clay … His dependence on his secretary of 17 years, Monica, is superbly conveyed by Sarah Woodward who alone, apart from Jennings, knows how to speak the lines with zing and sting. There’s a way of doing Coward that freshens and challenges the received notions – Philip Prowse and Sean Mathias have shown how. But this production seems undermined by its own nervousness about doing Coward at all. It’s fairly funny, but not nearly funny enough. And the wigs and costumes are uniformly dreadful.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “While radically redefining its autobiographical hero, Garry Essendine, Davies has invested the work with rather more cultural significance than it can bear … Alex Jennings, however, offers a superbly executed re-interpretation … Jennings does not stint on Garry's self-esteem; at the same time he suggests he is the only truth-teller in a world of lies ... It is a richly funny performance that confirms Coward's innate puritanism … Davies and his designer Tim Hatley overplay the fact that Coward wrote the play just before the outbreak of war in 1939. What we get is a relentless illustration of the fact that the period marked the end of an era of privilege … Even if lumbered with excess cargo, the production still delivers the laughs. Sarah Woodward invests Garry's private secretary with a wonderful sardonic austerity, and Pip Carter shows Roland Maule transformed from Garry's severest critic into a creepily adoring acolyte. Lisa Dillon as a vampirical sexpot and Amy Hall as a Garry groupie also subtly remind us of the lurking misogyny in Coward's writing.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “Many seemed to be having a high old time, but Noel Coward's Present Laughter strikes me as a repellent comedy, and Howard Davies' unexpectedly clunking production did nothing to change my mind ... Alex Jennings undoubtedly gives a virtuoso performance, delivering Essendine's great arias of self-pity with aplomb … Because he is such an attractive and charismatic actor, Jennings almost pulls off the trick of making you like the character, as Coward intended, but even this actor's prodigious charm isn't quite up to that impossible task. Howard Davies' production is lumbered with a hideous, biliously turquoise set by Tim Hatley, with vertiginous perspectives that recall a bad Vorticist painting … Could it be that the usually excellent Davies fell out of love with the play as he directed it? That is certainly the impression his sluggish, heavy-handed production creates. Too many of the performances lack the precision and panache that Coward demands, and a couple of them are so poor that it is hard to believe this is a National Theatre production rather than the work of a struggling regional rep … The impression remains that this is a botched shot at an overrated play.”

  • Simon Edge in the Daily Express (three stars) – “Alex Jennings, familiar to film audiences as Prince Charles in The Queen, and one of our most brilliant stage actors, certainly has his moments. He is gripping when he monsters his crazed male admirer, played with hilarious intensity by Pip Carter, and at his moments of greatest energy his tottering, put-upon histrionics are a joy. But much of the time he shows an odd reluctance to let himself go. There is little edge to his banter and, in a role where over-acting is a virtue, the twists and turns of artifice and sincerity never make themselves very clear. He is not always helped by his support. The long scene where he is seduced by married siren Joanna, played by Lisa Dillon, is leaden. There are strong performances, though, from Sara Stewart as Essendine’s still-loyal wife and Sarah Woodward as his acid-tongued secretary – with a striking vocal resemblance to Ann Widdecombe – and after a lack-lustre start the evening gains pace and zing. If the play itself were sublime, the production might get away with it. But it’s an indulgent piece at the best of times, padded with cliché as well as wit, and a worthy revival needs to be tauter than this.”

  • Paul Taylor in the Independent (four stars) – “Howard Davies' production of Present Laughter is a marvel of comic brio and farcical panache. A few caveats first and then the delights … The set, though lovely, suggests that Garry and his interior decorators could teach Versailles a thing or two about lavishness … Alex Jennings can do egotistic exasperation along a higher and more subtly rising scale than any other actor … But there are splendid performances all round as the cast portray the people who farcically collide as Garry prepares for his trip abroad. Sarah Woodward is hilarious as his sharp-tongued and devoted secretary, and Sara Stewart brings a fine, amused poise to his resourceful first wife. I was particularly impressed by Pip Carter in the difficult part of Roland Maule, the nerd from Uckminster who wants to be an avant-garde playwright … It's a pity that the play misogynistically demonises Joanna (Lisa Dillon), whose predatory libido poses a threat to Garry's group. Double standards, in that respect, mar what is otherwise a singularly successful evening.”

    - by Tom Atkins

    ** Don’t miss our Outing to Present Laughter on 12 November 2007 - including a FREE drink & access to our EXCLUSIVE post-show cast reception - click here to book now! **