First night: A rich portrayal of flamboyant emptiness

`Present laughter' The West Yorkshire Playhouse

TO SAY that Ian McKellen was born to play the leading role in Noel Coward's Present Laughter might 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 his cosy coterie is in danger of being sundered by predatory female sexuality.

It is 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 are supposed to be part and parcel of Essendine's own charm.

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 these satellites revolving obediently around him, even when his weaknesses are an open book to them. If you cannot establish that, then you are unable to convey the essential joke of the piece - which is that this arch control-freak farcically loses his control in the course of the proceedings.

This is where McKellen comes up trumps. When Peter Bowles played the role in the West End recently, he projected all the queeny excitability of a Desmond Lynam, but he was drivenness itself compared with Tom Conti's dozily narcissistic Garry a couple of years earlier.

By contrast, McKellen delivers a performance of electric energy and hilariously unpredictable comic timing. Coward, one suspects, knew how to throw a mean tantrum and one is always aware here of a camp volcano waiting to erupt under that wrinkly roue exterior. McKellen captures every aspect of Garry superbly well. The pampered child who will never grow up, he eats his 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 career matters more than personal relations, he can be slapped in the face by an angry cast-off one moment and then return to discussing contracts the next. Playing the piano at the start of the second act, McKellen sings a verse or two of one of Coward's most self- revealing songs, "I Travel Alone', its sentiment drolly undercut because when the bell goes, this Garry starts arranging his hair in the mirror. Forever clutching his breast melodramatically and declaring that the slaves around him are vultures, Coward's hero is not essentially lonely but essentially empty.

Having had a nightmare rail journey to Leeds, I arrived at Malcolm Sutherland's very unevenly cast production in a state of gibbering misanthropy. Given that I do not warm to the play, it says a lot for McKellen's stellar performance that it swiftly restored my usual golden good nature.

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