Review: Who won the battle of comedies - Present Laughter (Old Vic) or Noises Off (Lyric Hammersmith)?
London's theatreland is ripe for a good hearty laugh. I mean look at the state of the world, who wouldn't want to bury their head in giggles for a couple of hours?
And so we are spoiled by not one but two classic comedies both with stellar casts: Present Laughter starring Andrew Scott and Indira Varma at the Old Vic and Noises Off starring Meera Syal and Daniel Rigby at the Lyric Hammersmith.
But which one is best?
The two plays haven't just got comedy in common, both involve actors playing actors.
Andrew Scott plays Garry Essendine a stage star with his coterie of friends and staff trying to stop him making bad decisions - or are they riding on the coattails of his fame as he believes.
Drama off stage
In Noises Off Meera Syal is one of a troupe of actors touring the regions where the drama offstage threatens to overshadow that on stage.
What the play is most famous for is showing the same scene not only as it appears on stage but also from backstage. You get to see it three times in fact.
Both plays rely on running jokes and a lot of comings and goings, lots of doors, people missing each other and being kept apart.
They also both satirise actors and theatre. The 'director' in Noises Off has to balance fragile egos, manipulate and cajole while Garry's ex-wife (Varma), manager and secretary (Sophie Thompson) balance indulgence with needling.
There is a huge amount of skill involved in presenting chaos on stage, something which has to be greatly admired, particularly in Noises Off.
However, it is Present Laughter which feels like a more substantial piece. Yes there is carefully contained chaos and Andrew Scott makes melodrama and over-acting look effortless (I'm sure it requires great skill and balance) but just occasionally you feel for him.
He is superb (there are plenty of regular reviews that will go into why) but so is Sophie Thompson as his dry, no-nonsense secretary.
Product of the 80s
Noises Off remains very much a product of the 80s when it was written - my Dad would have howled with laughter - but director Matthew Warchus has chosen to give Present Laughter a twist which makes it feel fresh.
The gender of certain characters is swapped making the relationships far more complex and interesting - Garry is bisexual, wives have affairs with women, husbands have affairs with men.
Not that it matters but you know that Noel Coward would approve.
The problems I had with Noises Off when I first saw it still exist, primarily that the running jokes become laboured but then so do the elements I loved - the silliness and technical brilliance in pulling it off.
Noises Off is silly fun - ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ but Present Laughter is utterly sublime ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.
Noises Off is at the Lyric Hammersmith until 27 July and is 2 hours 10 minutes including an interval.
Present Laughter is at the Old Vic until 10 August and is 2 hours 30 including an interval.
A postscript: There is another nice little meta connection in Present Laughter. It's a running joke how Garry was talked out of (badly) playing Peer Gynt...and just down the road from the Old Vic, the National is about to open a production of that very play.
If Andrew Scott could ad lib a reference it would be well...
James McArdle is playing 'Peter' Gynt, the two were in The Emporer and The Galilean at the NT together.
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