Writer: Michael Frayn
Director: Lindsay Posner
Reviewer: Michael Hootman
The farce is a theatrical form which, with some justification, has a somewhat tarnished reputation, with too many productions proffering a succession of scantily clad women being pushed into wardrobes, shoved under beds and shunted onto balconies. Noises Off has a central idea which seems obvious and even banal – it’s basically a farce about putting on a farce – yet when done well it’s perhaps the funniest play ever written. Lindsay Posner’s production has the requisite amount of silliness and when it hits its stride is uproariously funny. Yet it never quite reaches the heights of the National Theatre’s version of twenty years ago. It may be unfair to compare the two productions but when a play is done truly brilliantly a perfectly decent stab at the same material can only lead to a slight sense of disappointment.
It’s the evening before the first night of Nothing On. The actors are under-rehearsed, they forget their lines, are drunk or decide to leave it to the eleventh hour to discuss their character’s motivation. The play’s director Lloyd Dallas (Alexander Hanson) helpfully explains that the real point of the play is simply making sure the props are in the right place at the right time: in essence Nothing On is simply “doors and sardines”. Dotty Otley (Felicity Kendal) hasn’t quite mastered the art of sardine placement which is a bit of a pity as she’s sunk her life’s savings into the play. Selsdon Mowbray (Matthew Kelly) can certainly make an impressive entrance, though his drinking ensures it’s usually at the wrong time. Belinda Blair (Tracy-Ann Oberman) in some ways is the company’s mother figure trying to smooth out fraying tempers and shattered nerves, though she does have a habit of revealing who’s currently sleeping with who.
The second act is always difficult. It tries to show the intricate emotional entanglements which form when any group of people spend a prolonged amount of time with each other. However, this happens backstage during a performance of Nothing On which means, given that the characters are unable to speak, every perceived sleight, actual sleight and the occasional outbreak of psychotic jealous rage has to be communicated by pointing and grimacing. This comes perilously close to pantomime and, to complicate matters, there’s so much happening on stage it can be hard to follow what we’re watching. The fact that at one point the action involves one actor trying to attack another with an axe stretches the audience’s credulity. But then maybe this is Frayn pushing at the limits of what farce can be by casually throwing in an attempted murder.
Farces, even ones as clever as this, can only paint their characters in the broadest of brushstrokes. The performances strive, even in the midst of absurd chaos, to make sure we see Frayn’s characters as humans rather than mere plot devices. Kendal plays Otley with an undercurrent of despair. In the final act she’s clearly given up completely and it seems possible this could be because she’s seen her future reduced to living in penury. Jonathan Coy is rather charming as a perfectly decent jobbing actor and Kelly has a lot of fun playing the kind of dreadful old ham who probably hasn’t trodden the boards since the early seventies. For comic greatness the evening belongs to Joseph Millson’s leading man; by the third act his exasperation and outraged disbelief as he heroically tries to rescue a play crumbling around him is little short of magnificent.
Runs until Saturday 22nd October at the Theatre Royal, Brighton.