Noises Off - review

Old Vic, London

Michael Frayn must have the subtlest mind ever applied to the writing of farce. And with Noises Off, first seen in 1982 and now gloriously revived, he has created not just a flawless theatrical mechanism. In his portrait of a slowly disintegrating stage production, Frayn reminds us that beneath the order we seek to impose on our own daily lives lurks a terrifying abyss.

But it would not do to get too solemn about such a riotous event. What one does notice is that Frayn prepares the ground perfectly, by recreating the final rehearsal of one of those basic British farces he doubtless saw as a young reporter.

Entitled Nothing On, it is filled with fluster, sardines, slamming doors, illicit nookie and fake sheikhs. Frayn also carefully delineates a recognisable array of theatrical types supervised by a wearily exasperated director. The cast includes a seasoned drunk, a honey-tongued scandalmonger, a veteran who can never quite synchronise lines and moves, and a fretful worrier anxiously seeking the motivation for every piece of comic business.

It is precisely because Frayn establishes the people that the famous second act, in which we see the farce from a backstage perspective during a matinee in Goole, is more than a balletic exercise.

Private passions intrude on public performance as the juve lead suspects his mature lover of infidelity. The running gag is that each time he comes off stage he finds her in seemingly compromising positions with his fellow actors. And when she gets her revenge on him by tying his shoelaces together, he is forced to execute the dizzying moves of farce by hopping around like a shackled kangaroo, something that Jamie Glover does with prodigious physical skill.

If we continue to roar with laughter, not least during the farce's final collapse, it is for several reasons. It is because Frayn understands the recalcitrant nature of stage props. It is because disaster achieves its own unstoppable momentum. But, deep down, it is also because Frayn taps into our simultaneous delight in, and fear of, panic, disorder and chaos.

Rationalisation only comes after. While watching it, one simply relishes the disciplined mayhem of Lindsay Posner's production and a gallery of mercilessly exact performances. Celia Imrie lends the sardine-saturated housekeeper a nice hint of demonic lust.

Jonathan Coy as a nervous fusspot displays a brow permanently and hilariously furrowed. Karl Johnson as an unreliable toper drifts through the action in a befuddled haze. And both Janie Dee as a supposedly warm-hearted gossip and Robert Glenister as the god-like director clearly draw on a lifetime's observation.

The old rule says that farce only works when it punctures bourgeois respectability. Frayn gives the lie to that by creating a modern classic that shows the genre can also embrace the bohemian world of theatre itself.

All one can say is that, with this and One Man, Two Guvnors running simultaneously, London boasts two of the funniest plays you could ever hope to see and echoes with the sound of laughter.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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