Well, here’s a surprise. Michael Frayn’s exquisite farce – now celebrating its 40th anniversary – has always been exceptionally funny. But has it ever been shot through with this much pathos? It’s not the first time Lindsay Posner has directed Frayn’s farce-within-a-farce and, in terms of laughs per minute, it’s not a patch on his 2011 production at The Old Vic (I’m smiling just remembering it). But there’s something about this thoughtful and compassionate take that feels more relevant and just that bit more real.
With Felicity Kendal as the doddery Dotty Otley – a regional actor on her final tour – this was never going to be a show with clowning at its heart. There’s something Beckettian about Kendal’s performance, as she staggers about the stage with a plate of sardines, doomed to make the same mistakes again and again. Jonathan Coy plays Frederick Fellowes, an ageing actor who simply cannot get anything right. He’s often portrayed as an easy figure of fun but, here, every laugh comes with a wince.
Then there are the harassed characters behind the scenes – the stage manager (Pepter Lunkuse) and stagehand (Hubert Burton) – tasked with holding the shambolic show together. There’s something about the way the director wrings those two dry that, last night at least, felt particularly uncomfortable and pertinent. As the pound tumbled and the UK financial market quaked, the stagehands felt like the civil servants of the theatrical world; the unsung heroes left to clean up the mess created by those in positions of power.
The big laughs (and there are still lots) are largely left to the brilliant Joseph Millson, who plays the grandstanding lead actor Garry Lejeune. Millson bounces up the stairs with his shoelaces tied together: hilarious. He tumbles down the stairs: sublime. Tracy-Ann Oberman has a wonderful twinkle about her and wafts about the stage with a permanent air of mischief. They inject a little lightness into a production that wasn’t as funny as I’d anticipated – but was many other things instead. What a testament to Frayn that he can write a play with such a meticulous structure, that still manages to bend to the times in which it is performed.
Noises Off is at Theatre Royal Bath, until 1 October, then touring.