How do you define charisma? What is the special quality that makes some individuals impossible to resist, however badly they behave – that draws others to them, that confers a golden glow on the chosen few admitted to their inner circle? We’ve all encountered it, and we can’t, try as we might, manufacture it – but we know it when we see it, and here it is, embodied by Andrew Scott, and utterly glorious. Scott – whom theatre-goers have recognised as a blazing talent for years, but who is now white-hot thanks to his turn as the “Sexy Priest” on TV’s Fleabag – plays Garry Essendine, a glamorous matinee idol facing a midlife crisis, in Noel Coward’s bittersweet, semi-farcical 1939 comedy.
It’s well established that the work was, to a certain extent, a self-portrait – and Scott and director Matthew Warchus together decided to bring the sexual ambiguity latent in the play to the forefront with some deft gender-switching. So, Joanna Lyppiatt, the predatory wife of a theatrical producer who sets her sights on Garry in the original, here becomes Joe, a virile, smoothly Italianate stud played by Enzo Clienti. It’s a shrewd move that liberates the subtext and marvellously lubricates a piece that can creak, tempering its whiff of misogyny and sitting more comfortably in our own less rigid times. And Scott is nothing short of miraculous as Garry, effortlessly elegant, fatally charming and – when the whirlwind of admirers abates, and the manic energy of the performance that dominates his life, offstage and on, eventually winds down – startlingly, devastatingly sad.
Rob Howell’s designs, sumptuously lit by Tim Lutkin, ensure that the staging looks delicious. Garry’s home, in which the entire play is set, is a chic art deco pad well equipped with the multiple doors that facilitate the increasingly manic comings and goings. And the costumes swish and shimmer, all silks and flowing silhouettes. Scott wears them impeccably, gliding, pratfalling and scurrying like an exceptionally elegant toddler, a bundle of diffuse energy, his ego-driven want and need in rebellion against the ageing of his own, freshly-turned-40 body. While his behaviour might seem impish and irresponsible, it’s clear that his hangers-on demand too much from him. Like blood-lusting vampires, they adoringly suck him dry. And when the intricate machine of Warchus’ brilliantly paced production winds down, we see the desolation and deep loneliness behind Garry’s dazzling display.
Sophie Thompson is wonderfully wry and a mistress of tone and timing as Garry’s seasoned, unshockable secretary Monica. And Indira Varma is serenely poignant as his ex-wife, Liz, who has never quite succeeded in leaving him. But the evening is Scott’s, and his is a performance of unassailable intelligence, wit and allure. Resistance is futile.