If the National Theatre’s production of The Habit of Art, reviewed elsewhere on this site, is the hottest ticket in town, then the modern-day revamp of Molière’s The Misanthrope at the Comedy Theatre is running a pretty close second.

Prospective punters were laying siege to the box office at the performance I attended; a burly security man advised that entry to the foyer was physically impossible and that I had better return a little later.

The fuss has been created, of course, by the presence in the cast of the cinema icon Keira Knightley, making her West End debut in the company of Damian Lewis, another Brit turned screen celebrity. That the lissom and lovely Hollywood star is playing, well, a lissome and lovely Hollywood star has led some critics to suggest that this hardly places a great strain on her acting skills, a remark that is as unfair as it is unkind.

It is the sort of actress she is presenting that calls for careful characterisation. Jennifer may be vain, manipulative and callous in her taking up and laying aside of lovers, but she still possesses mischievous appeal and wit enough to catch, and hold, even the acidulous, celeb-loathing playwright Alceste – the misanthrope of the title, although, as Lytton Strachey observed, his problem is really more his sensitiveness than his misanthropy. He is brilliantly presented by Lewis, who really spits out the many cleverly crafted insults placed in his mouth by Martin Crimp in his neatly rhyming version in English.

Since its first airing in the mid-1990s, the play has been updated to take account of David Cameron with “his toxic, spray-on brand of fake compassion”. Interestingly, there has also been a change in the hit list of fellow playwrights feeling the rough edge of Alceste’s tongue, with Tom Stoppard now substituting for the saintly Alan Bennett. Perhaps Alceste’s most vicious abuse, though – and we must surely think he deserves it – is reserved for the oily drama critic and would-be dramatist Covington, who is portrayed in a fine comic performance by Tim McMullan.

Jennifer is also in the first-division when it comes to holding her own in an argument as we see in the set-piece ructions with her odious former drama teacher (Tara FitzGerald) and the jealous Alceste himself. That she, like him, really has no time for fools – though, unlike him, is prepared to suffer them for the sake of her career – is subtly implied in Knightley’s performance.

Ably directed by Thea Sharrock and with a memorable setting in a swanky London hotel suite supplied by designer Hildegard Bechtler, the play must not be missed.

Until March 13. Tel: 0870 060 6637 (www.ambassadortickets.com/london).