It was, perhaps, the watching of a production of Noises Off at the age of fifteen that truly began my love of theatre. So it was with trepidation that I entered the Old Vic for Lindsay Posner’s revival of Michael Frayn’s 1982 farce. I needn’t have worried.
From the moment the curtain rises on a beautifully detailed set – all doors and inappropriate stairwells – and Celia Imrie glides on clutching a plate of sardines, we know we are in safe hands. We join Imrie’s Dotty Otley (who plays housekeeper Mrs. Clackett) and her fellow cast members in the chaotic technical rehearsal of a poorly written farce, Nothing On. With just hours before curtain up, the director (a brilliantly cynical and embittered Robert Glenister) has all but given up, emerging from the depths of the Old Vic’s stalls, attempting to keep in check this ramshakle band.
The play within a play framing has never worked better, the audience allowed to enter into the slightly murky world of backstage politics in the infamous second act. The set reversed, we watch the show again from the poor, put upon stage manager’s point of view, almost entirely in silence. Weeks into the run, the company has begun to unravel. The superb Jamie Glover’s leading man suspects his lover of cheating with any male in sight (with good reason, too, as he finds her in various compromising positions), Karl Johnson’s old-school drunk has found the whiskey he has been searching for and Amy Nuttal’s lense-losing, half-naked leading lady competes with an emotionally unstable stage manager for the affections of the director. It is throughout this act that Frayn’s genius – as well as the expertise of the ensemble – truly shines. With impeccable timing, the wrong doors slam, cacti are sat upon and Glover is forced to hop about the stage with shoelaces tied together. There is so much to watch across the stage and every bit is fully realised and, ultimately, joyous.
Any farce is, of course, going to be ridiculous. But here, with such lovely attention to detail, the stereotypes on show come to life and I found myself truly caring. By Act 3, all hope is lost. Twelve weeks into the run, the set again reversed, we see this once smiley brood labouring through the same script and, as the curtain falls, I feel great sympathy for this lot. But let’s not get too deep. I left the theatre smiling, my torso aching. My fifteen year-old-self would have been delighted by this luminous production. Albeit a different production Noises Off remains, quite probably, the funniest night I will ever have in a theatre.
by Graham Butler