Present Laughter at the Old Vic review ****

Present Laughter

Old Vic Theatre, 24th July 2019

Ummed and ahhed about whether to see this. On the one hand it was Andrew Scott in the lead as one of theatre’s most renowned hyper-narcissists, Gary Essendine. On the other hand it was a play from the dreadful old reactionary Noel Coward, albeit one of the quartet of classic comedies of manner, alongside Hay Fever, Private Lives and Blithe Spirit, before he became a terribly bitter sh*t.

Its problem is that it is smugly celebrating the very world and people that it purports to subvert. Of course it racks up caustic barb after knowing aside, many of which are admittedly pretty funny, all wrapped up in a well constructed, if gentle, farce, but it never really gets under the skin of its main, or supporting, characters. Which leaves me more annoyed than intrigued by the central conceit, that an actor/artist, and now just “celebrity”, needs the constant validation of others to stave off lonely despair as he/she negotiates the divide between reality and performance. Message to Gary/Noel. Just because you know you are a needy prick doesn’t make you any less of a needy prick. (Essendine, famously, is an anagram of neediness).

Still my adoration for Mr Scott won out, alongside a hunch, correct as it turned out, that director Matthew Warchus would be unable to resist having some fun making explicit the covert sexual relationships at the centre of the original play. And, in the end, I was very glad I went. Still can’t quite shake off the indignation that informs the above opinion of the snobbish, bullying Coward and his plays, but I have to admit the layers that emerge through the play really did surprise me.

Rob Howell’s set and costumes offer a striking jazzy deco period vibe, (the plays dates from 1943), with a contemporary twist, which helped enliven the somewhat cardboard supporting characters, and Mr Warchus instructed them not to hold back. Which suits the talents of Enzo Cilenti as Joe, Gary’s forthright paramour and Suzie Toase as his cuckolded wife Helen. Abdul Salis is Gary’s agent Morris Dixon, natural comic Sophie Thomson as Gary’s protective assistant Monica, Joshua Hill as stalwart valet Fred whilst rising talent Kitty Archer turns in another vivacious performance as young devotee Daphne. Though these are all a little overshadowed by Luke Thallon as super-fan and aspiring playwright Roland Maule and, especially Indira Varma as Liz, Gary’s world-weary wife. Not quite everyone is putting on a performance but Gary certainly is not alone in the attention seeking stakes. And they obviously need him as much as he needs them.

The deliberately ropey plot is never over-accelerated, although a few gags are still painfully telegraphed. And somehow the genius stage actor that is Andrew Scott managed to extract pathos and ambiguity, beyond the sexual, from Gary’s egomania. He cannot quite escape the masturbatory-squared approach that Coward takes to his stage alter-ego but he does leave you guessing as to his true feelings and the idea of Gary/Coward as some sort of mid-life, man-child, he is in his early 40s, is perspicacious. And, once again, Mr Scott manages that rare trick of projecting his performance not just to the whole audience but also to each and every one of us, (at least that’s what I felt).

So message received and understood. Though I don’t think I will ever feel pity for those who choose celebrity. If you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen. And definitely don’t stick your head in the oven whilst getting your publicist elicit public sympathy.

I’m Not Running at the National Theatre review ***

I’m Not Running

National Theatre Lyttleton, 22nd January 2019

If you have a moment one day take a look at the writing credits of David Hare, both for stage and screen. There are a lot, including some of the finest dramas written in the English language over the past four decades. And he shows no sign of slowing down in contrast to some of his eminent peers. I enjoyed his interpretation of Chekhov’s The Seagull and his last original play, The Moderate Soprano, (even if it veered towards the hagiographic), as well as his screenplay for the film Denial, and prior to that the Worricker thriller trilogy on telly, which he also directed. I can’t say I was completely persuaded by The Red Barn, his adaptation of a Georges Simeon story, his last outing at the NT, though it looked brilliant nor by Collateral, his four part TV police procedural/thriller on the Beeb last year, which was packed with detail and performance but didn’t quite hang together (especially when compared to the likes of Line of Duty and Informer).

So is the old boy going off the boil. Well, obviously not. Here is someone who can literally churn out line after line of exquisitely apposite dialogue in his sleep, (even if it does verge on catechism), his drama continues to be stuffed with commentary on big moral, political, social and economic issues, the sine qua non of state-of-the-nation drama, he can sketch out a character in just a few lines, (even if deeper psychological details can sometimes move elusive), and his stories normally have a verve and pace that rapidly draws you, in provided you are prepared to engage the brain as well as the heart. All of this is on show in I’m Not Running, which also features a couple of bravura lead performances from Sian Brooke and Alex Hassell (and fine supporting turns from especially Joshua McGuire and Amaka Okafor, Brigid Zengeni and Liza Sadovy).

Yet it is not an entirely convincing play and, IMHO, falls short of vintage political Hare seen in the likes of Gethsemane, or The Power of Yes and Stuff Happens, and falls well short of the likes of The Secret Rapture, Plenty or, on a similar theme, The Absence of War. This, I think reflects, the slightly awkward conjunction of the personal connection and political rivalry of the main characters Pauline Gibson and Jack Gould, and the censure of a Labour party, (always a favourite target for Hare), which smacks more of the Blair years than the current incarnation. There is surely much that Mr Hare could have criticised about the current Opposition in his play, notably its enabling of Brexit, but here we are asked to look instead at how the party machine locks out “outsiders”, specifically a woman, in favour of well-connected, “professional” politicians, with the NHS as the idealogical battleground. Whilst the points it makes, and this being David Hare, the way it makes those points, are elegant and indubitably valid, the absence of Corbyn, Momentum and the B-word, seems curious.

The play opens with a media scrum ahead of an announcement from Pauline Gibson (Sian Brooke) and her adviser Sandy Mynott (Joshua McGuire) about whether she will stand as leader of the Labour Party. We then flashback to Newcastle University in 1997 and the Blair landslide when Pauline, a headstrong medical student, and boyfriend, hesitant would-be lawyer, Jack (Alex Hassell), are splitting up. Pauline, whilst dealing with the fall-out from her alcoholic mother Blaise, (a savvy, though somewhat wasted, performance from Liza Sadovy), enters Parliament as an Independent defending her Corby hospital from closure. She crosses paths again with Jack, scion of an intellectual heavyweight of the Left, who is now a smooth careerist rising up the Parliamentary ranks tasked with NHS reform. Principles vs pragmatism, single issue vs party machine, popularity with party and public, institutional sexism in politics, all are explored against the backdrop of the smouldering passions of the voluble couple.

It is still a testament to Mr Hare’s dramatic gift that the arguments can be interrogated without any hint of cumbersome exposition and that the characters he recruits to the cause still come across as real, if not in both cases here, as completely likeable. Director Neil Armfield could hardly do more to tease out the detail of the text and Ralph Myers rotating blank room set doesn’t get in the way (though there are occasions when the actors look a little lost when standing at the wings of the Lyttleton stage).

Sian Brooke’s Pauline contains enough distanced vulnerability to set alongside her self-righteousness and Alex Hassell’s fly-by-night Jack convinces as he treads the path littered with compromise that he was ordained to follow, but the Tourist couldn’t escape the feeling that this was all a little bit David Hare by numbers and that the couple, even with the supporting characters, seemed to be operating in a bubble devoid of external context. Still well worth seeing though for me James Graham’s Labour of Love was a far more entertaining, and insightful, take on similar territory.