Nicholas Hytner encapsulated the essence of farce when he made the point that you can stage the Marriage of Figaro on the moon as long as the doors are in the right place. That tenet is particularly true for Noises Off, which Michael Frayn was inspired to write having paid a backstage visit to one of his earlier comedies and realised that it was a good deal funnier viewed from the wings than from a seat in the stalls.
Frayn’s ingenious meta-farce, in which we see a fractious rep company coming to grief in a cliche-ridden comedy called Nothing On, is always new, always the same. It’s less a play than a theatrical machine that fires, or rather misfires, magnificently. Though Blanche McIntyre’s production, shared between Nottingham, Northern Stage and the Nuffield Southampton, looks outwardly like every other revival seen over the past 30 years, the punch-ups and pratfalls are peerlessly executed and Robert Innes Hopkins’s set fulfils its function of putting all the doors in the right place.
You are reminded, as lines are fluffed, cues missed and stage management reduced to tears, that Frayn’s concept preceded the success of The Play That Goes Wrong by some three decades. But while our appetite for disaster remains undiminished, there can be a slightly cynical edge to the laughter; due, perhaps, to an atavistic desire on the part of an audience to witness a bunch of preening luvvies receiving their comeuppance. McIntyre’s production evades such unpleasantness because it grasps the essential point that, although the play happens to be about a group of actors, it exposes the day-to-day anxieties, ridiculous workload and terrible management decisions that affect any over-stretched, irredeemably mediocre workplace.
Truly great plays are those that manage to stay ahead of their times, and there’s an additional seam of laughs mined here due to the fact that the play-within-a-play features an affluent boor who is struggling to keep his off-shore tax arrangements concealed. John Elkington’s humiliation cannot help but bring to mind the attempts of certain public figures to impose their authority while everyone can plainly observe that they have their trousers round their ankles.
The attempts of Carla Mendonça’s harassed housekeeper to keep track of her props is a particular delight (“And I take the newspaper. Do I take the newspaper?”). Orlando Wells is suitably supercilious as a director who clearly believes that putting together a provincial repertory production is a feat that overshadows God’s creation of the universe. Ritu Arya and Sophia Nomvete provide an entertaining, ongoing catfight between a harassed stage manager and a vacant ingenue who, for reasons best known to themselves, are warring for their director’s affections. But the overall impact of McIntyre’s staging becomes clear when Robin Bowerman’s none-too-sober old-stager forgets a key line and the whole audience provides the prompt in unison: “Sardines!” It’s a revival that conclusively proves Frayn’s premise that all the world’s a stage – unfortunately.
•At Nottingham Playhouse until 30 April. Box office: 0115-941 9419.