Its reputation precedes Michael Frayn’s comedy ‘Noises Off‘, hyped as it is as ‘one of the funniest plays of all time’. A lot to live up to – so does this new revival by Jeremy Herrin deliver? Yes. This production is a joyous, riotous and hilarious celebration of farce which never fails to entertain and amuse.
The play is divided into three Acts; in the first we are introduced to a company of actors in the midst of a technical rehearsal. Despite the director’s frequent and progressively desperate interjections that the play opens in less than 24 hours, the actors are still forgetting lines and stage directions. From the moment Meera Syal hobbles on to the stage as Dotty, misplacing props and passively aggressively rebuking the director’s notes ‘did we change that then love?’ the laughs start, and it just keeps getting funnier. Each character is a recognisable caricature in the world of theatre, from the arrogant lothario director, to the beleaguered stagehands expected to perform multiple roles (including on stage), not forgetting the self-involved actor needing motivation for moving a box.
After the interval, we join the company in Ashton-under-Lyne where they are midway through the run and witness the chaotic goings on backstage. Relationships have become fractured, the director has returned temporarily in a last ditch attempt to save one of the cast quitting, and the problems are starting to spill out on to the stage. At one point, after listening to numerous, accidental, last minute calls for the audience to take their seats, the director storms backstage asking ‘what the f*** is going on?’ and it feels an apt expression of the catastrophic mayhem unfolding. The beauty is that while the actors within the play are making mistakes, the actors we watch are rather brilliantly completing a complex array of choreographed movements.
As funny as this section is, it is the final act which really lifts the play to 5 star status. Here the audience are poised to watch the final performance of the run in Stockton-on-Tees (even the place names sound funny by this point). As everything falls apart around them, the cast and crew desperately try to prove the adage ‘the show must go on’. Actors slip on sardines, pull off door handles, miss cues and ad lib, while Amy Morgan as Brooke blithely carries on relaying her lines regardless of whether they make sense or not.
There are many things to laud about this play; the script, the characters, the acting, but perhaps the most impressive is the sheer intricacy of the farcical elements. The skill, meticulous timing and attention to detail required by the actors to achieve the Chaplinesque levels of physical performance that they do, is outstanding.
Those who have seen the play in one of its many earlier incarnations may have comparisons to make, but it is impossible to imagine anyone keeping a straight face during this expertly executed and uproariously hysterical farce about a farce.