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Theatre Review: A beautifully wrapped present of laughter

That Present Laughter has no real ending and that its plot dances on the spot may be Noel Coward's demonstration of the burden of Shakespeare's song: "Present mirth hath present laughter / What's to come is still unsure". On the other hand it might be a reminder that the day cannot be seized forever, that, as the ineffably vain celebrity actor Garry Essendine (42) is beginning to see, "Youth's a stuff will not endure".

To help us decide Coward gives us his portrait of Thirties earnestness in the character of Roland Haule. Matthew Lloyd's fine production gives full rein to the hilarious Tom Smith, whose grey serge suit and parsonical imploring of Garry to fulfil his true, Chekhovian destiny is the play's built-in rebuke to such middleweight pondering. Life for Coward is all instants: a turn of phrase so perfectly fitted to its moment it could not bear repetition; sexual pleasure almost immediately forgotten. Verbal wit, one of his highest values, depends equally upon speed of conception and its evanescence.

Contrarily, a good deal of the comedy does derive from the shafts of common-sensical realism so skilfully inserted by Amanda Boxer as Garry's secretary Monica, and the studied insouciance of Geraldine Alexander as his estranged wife Liz.

It is the workaday inconveniences of incoming mail, and unremembered lovers demanding breakfast, that make Garry's mornings so "discouraging". But as Monica and Liz need his talent and he needs their practicality, so Coward's wit needs their symbiotic antithesis.

Among the moderations Monica and Liz regularly claim to exercise upon Garry is that they save him from over-acting. With David Threlfall in the leading role there is a joke within a joke within a joke here. One of the fascinations of the evening is watching this virtuoso actor skate the razor's edge of excess. His sharp features give Garry an avian hauteur so enjoyingly vulnerable to the comic effect of any discomfiture. Then he takes on the aspect of a flustered heron whose flaps and squawks reveal a feral stratum beneath the Essendine patina, though it can sometimes come too dangerously close to a Spike Milliganish lunacy. But there is wonderful precision in the parodied self-regard with which he describes himself as "a simple boy stinking of idealism", the timing with which he endures a slap without breaking stride, and the delirious, over-the- top rant on the theme "I gave you my youth".

As always, Threlfall certainly gives a lot, and leads an assured company all of whom have a pleasure to offer. For beautifully wrapped laughter this Christmas, trip no further than to the Royal Exchange.

Royal Exchange, 0161 833 9833.

To 7 February