When Noel Coward's Hay Fever was revived at the new National Theatre in 1964, he wrote to Sir Laurence Olivier congratulating him on 'a cast that could play the Albanian telephone directory'. Last night's preview of the National's new production of Present Laughter left me wanting to gush in similar fashion. The preview including interval lasted more than three hours, but that was just because the audience was laughing so much. Every line was delivered with perfect timing. Alex Jennings is superb as the over-theatrical thesp Garry Essendine, perhaps Coward's most autobiographical part. It's a definitive performance and although Jennings has a stack of Olivier awards already, I hope he's in the running for another this time around after missing out last year for The Alchemist. He wisely makes no attempt to mimic Coward's diction or style, and he slides beautifully out of control in the second half. It's sheer delight, particularly when he juggles with a slice of toast, a plate and a teacup as his private and professional lives collide. The timing is just perfect and the rest of the cast are pitch-perfect, especially Sarah Woodward as the long-suffering secretary Monica, Amy Hall as the young admirer Daphne Stillington, Sara Stewart as Garry's ex-wife and Pip Carter as the weird young playwright Raymond Maule. I was less convinced by Lisa Dillon as the rampaging man-eating vamp Joanna, who seduces Garry on the sofa just before the interval. This was the only scene that didn't quite work for me. Dillon was hampered by a huge red wig, but the irresistible temptress wasn't quite there. The only previous time I have seen this play was a few years ago with the never-knowingly-underacted Rik Mayall playing the lead. He was very funny, but all on one level. Jennings and the rest of the cast manage to dig below the comic froth to find the despair and loneliness that is hidden below the surface in all of Coward's best plays. I was quite critical of director Howard Davies a few weeks ago for monkeying around with Gorky's Philistines, so I'm happy to redress the balance. My only reservation is a minor one. I haven't got a copy of the text in front of me, but I don't recall it involving Essendine listening to news of the outbreak of World War Two on the radio. It only lasts a moment, and it's clear the director wants to frame the frivolity of the Essendine world for us within a wider context. But it doesn't work. The tortured private and professional life of Coward himself, with his faithful coterie of aides and supporters, not the politics of the late 1930s, is the context we need. The disruption caused by Joanna in this play can be read as an echo of Coward's turbulent private and professional relationship with his American lover Jack Wilson. The programme notes instead give us an irrelevant picture of Neville Chamberlain and tells us quite ludicrously that Essendine's trip to Africa may have been inspired by Coward's wartime tours entertaining the troops. This is a red herring if ever I sniffed one. Coward was certainly engaged by social and political issues in 1939, but he kept them out of this play and put them in This Happy Breed, which he wrote at the same time. The setting is the late 1930s in peacetime, and Essendine's African trip is an overseas theatrical tour to Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban of the kind that Coward himself undertook. It all makes perfect sense. The play's opening was cancelled on the outbreak of World War Two, only reaching the stage in 1942. But Coward wisely didn't try to update it. Howard Davies seems to feel he knows better, but in associating it with the outbreak of war he manages to destroy the plausibility of the plot. If war had really been declared, then Essendine's African tour would immediately have been cancelled. Coward knew that. So, four and half stars instead of five. But go and see it!