With Democracy and Copenhagen, playwright Michael Frayn has become as celebrated for his wit and wisdom as for his sheer downright cleverness. This glorious revival of an early farce – premiered in the West End 30 years ago starring Penelope Keith and Peter Barkworth – reminds us that Noises Off, probably the funniest play in English since the Second World War, was no accident.
Well, it was a catalogue of accidents. Donkeys' Years - lovingly set by designer Peter McKintosh in “one of the smaller courts, in one of the lesser colleges, at one of the older universities” - is just as disaster-prone, as the Master’s wife, Lady Driver (Samantha Bond), unwisely abandons her lodgings after a college reunion.
Anyone who has subjected themselves to such an event – at Oxford, they are known as “gaudies” – will recognise the curious mixture of anxiety, nostalgia and masochism such reunions engender and which Frayn catches so perfectly. Twenty-five years after graduating, the edges have been knocked off these shining hopefuls, paunches have appeared, hairlines receded. But the old pecking orders and animosities remain.
Here, poor old Snell (Mark Addy), the rotund Welsh chemist from Rotherham who is researching the intestines of parasitic worms, and who never had rooms in college, is overlooked as usual until propelled into the second act imbroglio of slammed doors, drunken japes and a rousing chorus of “it’s fun being a nun.” Lady Driver has slipped back for an after-hours tryst with the college idol (who never materialises) and thrown herself short-sightedly onto the paralysed, attendant Snell.
In Jeremy Sams’ brilliantly cast production, David Haig as the education minister treats the back of a chair as the dispatch box in the House of Commons. Shuffling around the stage with his trousers round his ankles as though he were trying to emulate Tony Blair’s deputy, the adulterous John Prescott. Haig’s blend of self-importance and absurdity is a recipe for comic delirium.
Other participants in the fracas include Michael Simkins as a conspiratorial surgeon, Michael Fitzgerald as the corpulent vicar with a sing-song voice (and some odd habits, including a nun’s) and Jonathan Coy as a jobbing writer. Mark Addy is a picture of controlled confusion as the bearded Snell, while James Dreyfus exchanges his camp persona in The Producers for a fine study in muted, teeth-clenching acidity.
Lady Driver, née Rosemary Gilbert, was obviously this group’s Zuleika Dobson, and Samantha Bond’s attempt to play down her past while playing up in the present is another source of joy. Less obviously magisterial than was Penelope Keith, Bond binds the role to herself with hoops of steel, serenely crossing the stage on her bicycle before finding herself buried in a raucous scrum.
In all, a triumphant revival: delicious, delightful, definitive.
- Michael Coveney