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Theatre: It'll all end in tirades

TO SAY that Ian McKellen was born to play the leading role in Noel Coward's Present Laughter may sound a bit of a backhanded compliment. For Garry Essendine, the self-dramatising, ageing matinee idol and Coward alter ego, is unscrupulous double standards in a dressing gown. Protected from reality by an adoring and long-suffering entourage, he comes to feel that this cosy coterie is about to be split apart by predatory female sexuality.

It's telling that the woman who poses this threat is described as being "100 per cent female", as though this were self-evidently a major handicap to virtue. Odd, given that promiscuous impulses aren't thought to detract from Essendine's own charm. A wee touch of misogyny there, perhaps, in this insufficiently heterosexualised comedy a clef?

What removes my opening remark from the risk of a libel action is the fact that Garry has also to reek of the flamboyant natural authority that keeps the satellites spinning obediently round him, even when his weaknesses are an open book to them. If you can't establish that compelling sense of ego, then you are unable to convey the essential joke of the piece, which is that this arch control-freak farcically loses control during the play.

This is when McKellen comes up trumps. When Peter Bowles played the role recently, he projected all the self-involvement and queeny excitability of a Desmond Lynam, but he was driven-ness itself compared to Tom Conti's dozily narcissistic Garry a couple of years earlier.

By contrast, McKellen delivers a performance of hilariously combustible energy and unpredictable comic timing. "Don't be theatrical," he barks at one of his associates, throwing his arms up in a pose that would not disgrace the hammiest of Fascist dictators. You can always sense that he's a two-tirades-before-breakfast merchant.

McKellen captures Garry wonderfully well, whether assuming a martyr's mask at moments of lese-majeste, or melodramatically clutching his heart as though it were being cruelly pecked at, and ungratefully declaring that his devoted slaves are vultures.

Ever the pampered favourite child, he eats marmalade straight from the dish and wheedlingly nuzzles his estranged wife (a warmly actressy Clare Higgins) until she gives him his holiday present. A man to whom the stage matters more than the heart, he can be slapped in the face by an irate cast-off one moment and then return to discussing contracts the next, in that mother-knows-best manner that the master patented. At the start of the second act, McKellen croons a snatch of one of Coward's most self- revealing songs, "I Travel Alone", its sentiment drolly undercut here because, as soon as the doorbell goes, Garry instinctively starts arranging his hair in the mirror. But, then, Coward's hero is not essentially lonely; he's essentially empty.

After a nightmare rail journey to Leeds, I arrived at Malcolm Sutherland's unevenly cast production in a state of gibbering misanthropy. It says a lot for McKellen's stellar performance that it swiftly restored me to my usual golden good nature.

A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper. Booking: 0113-213 7700