Thursday 5 January 2012

Theatre review: Noises Off

Michael Frayn's double-sided farce Noises Off is regularly described as the funniest play of all time, which has to be a bit of a poison chalice: It has a lot to live up to and needs a spectacularly well-timed cast to actually do so. Fortunately Lindsay Posner at the Old Vic has assembled just this kind of cast and choreographed them to perfection.

The play-within-a-play is called Nothing On, and our first experience of it is at the tech rehearsal, doubling as a dress rehearsal, as the first night's hours away. Celia Imrie's Dotty is bankrolling the production and also playing housekeeper Mrs Clackett¹. Like most of the under-rehearsed cast, she's having trouble remembering her lines and the complex moves that largely involve plates of sardines. Among the cast is Selsdon (Karl Johnson,) drunk and frequently disappearing, so exhausted stage manager Tim (Paul Ready) is constantly called on to stand in for him. While the actors all struggle through their tech, the real audience gets an idea of how Nothing On is meant to run. After the interval we join them backstage at a matinee midway through the run, where the onstage farce is barely held together as the actors, now sick of each other's company, have even more chaos behind the scenes. The fact that one of the stars (Amy Nuttall) and the ASM (Aisling Loftus) now know that the director (Robert Glenister) has been sleeping with both of them, doesn't help, and his constantly foiled attempts to placate them with flowers is a highlight. With one series of mishaps and misunderstandings on one side of the set and another on the other, this central act is sublime madness.

If there's a downside to the play it's that this is a hard act to follow and our final experience of the play, which takes us back to the audience's point of view for the final performance, can't live up to the middle section. Although there's still a lot of entertainment to be had as the action falls apart in a whole new way and Nuttall's Brooke is unable to stray from the script no matter what goes wrong².

Though I've seen the film before this is my first Noises Off on stage, and it seems to me much of the reason it's held in such high regard is the way it hangs a lantern on the mechanics of farce, how hard it is for the actors to make all the right "mistakes" and how easily it can go wrong. Fortunately Posner's cast don't put a foot wrong - or rather they constantly put a foot wrong, in all the right places.

Noises Off by Michael Frayn is booking until the 10th of March at the Old Vic.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

¹Evil Alex commented that after being known for playing Miss Babs in Acorn Antiques, this costume sees Imrie looking more like Mrs Overall

²in which respect she was rather like our jobsworth usher tonight: I wanted Alex to take a picture of me peering around one of the Old Vic's many pillars for my userpic on this blog, to illustrate "Partially Obstructed View," but she forbade it. Then after the show she insisted we leave by the side door "because it's quicker" despite me saying I needed to go out the main way to use the loo. So I had to go out the side of the building then fight my way back in again. She's clearly been given a script of rules for the audience and this was NOT TO BE DEVIATED FROM!

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