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.
- by Tom Atkins