Writer: Michael Frayn
Director: Lindsay Posner
Today, we are besieged by various portrayals of theatrical calamities, in The Play That Goes Wrong and its many spinoffs, but Michael Frayn’s 1982 farce within a farce pretty much invented the genre. The play gives three renditions of the first act of fictional farce, Nothing On. Those familiar with the work of vintage farceurs like Ray Cooney would recognise the type of set-up. There is a libidinous estate agent and his lissom young girlfriend, a bumbling playwright and his fulsome wife, a stereotypical cockney housekeeper, and an aged burglar. All, apart from the housekeeper, think they have the house to themselves, setting the scene for constant opening and closing of doors, carefully timed exits and entrances, misunderstandings, mishaps and the appearance and disappearance of numerous plates of sardines.
The first rendition is the chaotic technical rehearsal in Weston-super-Mare, where Dotty Otley, played by Liza Goddard, is struggling to remember her lines and complex business as the housekeeper. Simon Coates’ apologetic Garry is having difficulty with the motivation for his ineffectual playwright, leaving the louche director, Lloyd, played by Simon Shepherd, to concoct ever more unlikely reasons for the requirements of an ill-constructed plot. As the wife, Lucy Robinson’s Belinda swans around lavishly, pouring oil on troubled waters. Dan Fredenburgh’s inarticulate Garry, playing the estate agent, has his own agenda, as Garry is revealed to be in a relationship with Dotty. Matthew Kelly’s Selsdon, playing the burglar, is a rascally old alcoholic who may or may not be deaf.
The company is completed by Lisa Ambalavanar’s Brooke, playing a character seemingly cast for appearance rather than dramatic skill, Nikhita Lesler’s stage manager and Daniel Rainford’s exhausted and put-upon man of all work, Tim.
The characters are clearly ill-prepared, the set is problematic, nobody can cope with all the plates of sardines, and all the actors constant questioning drives Lloyd to the limits of endurance. Though amusing, this first act is a little slow, perhaps, as all the plot points are being laid out to fuel the hilarity to come.
The second iteration is a Wednesday matinee a month later in Ashton-under-Lyne. This is seen from backstage, showing the reverse of the set. Relationships between the cast, romantic and otherwise, have become fraught and antagonistic. The director’s romantic adventures and Dotty’s perceived infidelity are threatening to derail the entire production. Nobody can find Selsdon, and Garry and Dotty are not speaking to each other.
As the scene plays out onstage, the drama backstage heightens, and various misunderstandings stoke Garry’s jealousy to fever pitch. Selsdon is chasing a bottle of whisky which keeps reappearing and being passed around by the cast. Meanwhile Lloyd keeps sending Tim out to buy flowers for Brooke, all of which go astray. There follows some business with a cactus that brings the hilarity to a close.
The third iteration shows a performance in Stockton, at the end of the run. The audience is now seeing the set from the front. The set is breaking down, mirroring the relationships between the cast and the crew. There follows an ever-escalating parade of blunders and gaffes, including a spectacular staircase fall by Fredenburgh, as the plot is gradually abandoned and the cast lurches frantically towards the curtain.
It is unfortunate that the scale of the scene change between the last two iterations necessitates a 5-minute lull, during which the audience seemed uncertain as to whether the play had finished. Yet this did little to dampen the enjoyment.
First and foremost, this is a very, very funny play, skilfully plotted and cleverly constructed. Lindsay Posner’s direction gives it full value, well supported by Simon Higlett’s design. This is a top-notch cast, easily mastering the hugely complex and demanding stream of business. There is slapstick a-plenty and lovely character playing throughout. The bottom line is that the production is hugely entertaining and fully justifies this iconic play’s sparkling reputation.
Runs until 16th September 2023