Noises Off, Old Vic | Theatre reviews, news & interviews
Noises Off, Old Vic
Hilarious revival of Michael Frayn's modern classic
The play-within-a-play device has honourable antecedents - playwrights from Thomas Kyd and Anton Chekhov through to Bertolt Brecht and Tennessee Williams have flirted with it, while Shakespeare loved it so much that he used it in several of his plays, most famously in Hamlet. Michael Frayn had the idea for Noises Off, which he wrote in 1982, when he was standing in the wings at a performance of Chinamen (a one-act farce performed as part of The Two of Us), which he had written for the late Lynn Redgrave, and thought that the backstage goings-on were even funnier than the onstage action.
In Noises Off, a cast of actors are rehearsing "Nothing On", a dreadful sex farce, in a faded rep theatre in Weston-super-Mare (the Somerset seaside town that is coincidentally the setting for a recent TV sitcom). It's the type of play in which young girls run about in their undies, old men drop their trousers, a fake sheikh turns up, the set's several doors are opened and shut continually, and misunderstandings ensue. Philip and Flavia, the owners of a converted “16th-century posset mill”, are in tax exile in Spain but have returned secretly so that the taxman won't find out, a fact unknown to estate agent Roger, who is using the supposedly empty house for afternoon nookie with tax inspector Vicki.
There are times when so much great acting is going on it's difficult to know where to focus one's attention
Each of Noises Off's three acts is a performance of the first act of "Nothing On", and it opens as director Lloyd, who really would rather already be at his next job directing “proper” theatre in a production of Richard III, is running his cast through a technical rehearsal. It's midnight, they open later that day, and Dotty Otley (who plays the char Mrs Clackett) hasn't quite learned her part. When she asks if she's getting her words right, Lloyd replies: “Some of them have a familiar ring...”
But Dotty (Celia Imrie) is not the only problem Lloyd (Robert Glenister) has to contend with. Garry (who plays would-be lothario Roger) is incapable of verbalising a coherent thought while offering “helpful” notes to the director, while Vicki/Brooke (Amy Nuttall) is a blissfully gormless actress who is blind without her contact lenses and doesn't listen to anything said to her, least of all by Lloyd.
Belinda (Flavia) has cottoned on to the fact that Lloyd is having affairs with both Brooke and assistant stage manager Poppy (Aisling Loftus) while Dotty and Garry are also an item. Meanwhile, Frederick (Philip) is prone to anxiety-induced nosebleeds and put-upon stagehand Tim (Paul Ready) is seriously sleep-deprived. In addition, they all have a full-time job keeping old soak Selsdon (Karl Johnson), who plays the burglar, off the booze.
It's a recipe for disaster, of course, but the beauty of Frayn's modern classic is that he ratchets up the comedy so teasingly. In Act I, much fun can be had from watching the cast parade every theatrical cliché about neurotic, egotistical and backstabbing behaviour as Janie Dee's Belinda – all “sweeties” and “darlings” - undermines all around her, Frederick (Jonathan Coy) and Garry (Jamie Glover) hold up proceedings as they ponder Philip's motivation for moving a box, and Dotty simply can't remember lines and handle props (mostly a plate of sardines, pictured above right) at the same time.
In Act II the action is set a month into the run of the farce, where Peter McKintosh's wonderful "Nothing On" set is now seen from the backstage area. Garry and Dotty are not on speakers, Poppy is pregnant and has to tell Lloyd, but he has returned to the show only to placate the truculent Brooke, and Selsdon is hitting the bottle again. As Garry grows increasingly jealous and sees every interaction between Dotty and the men as proof of her infidelity, their tiff grows into full-blown war and entrances are missed, props fumbled and serious injury caused. By Act III, back on the set of "Nothing On" as it limps towards the end of its run in another God-awful theatre, matters really have descended into farce.
I was helpless with laughter for much of the evening as the cast give superbly cadenced performances where every look or raised eyebrow speaks volumes. In fact, there are times when so much great acting is going on it's difficult to know where to focus one's attention. This is a modern classic given a wonderful revival by Lindsay Posner. Act II - performed mostly in fast and furious mime as the characters cope with backstage disasters - is particularly delightful, but the acting is brilliant throughout in an astonishingly accomplished ensemble production.
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