Short of natural disaster or nuclear holocaust, nothing can derail Michael Frayn’s masterclass in farce. Noises Off is so fine-tuned that, even just short of its absolute finest form, as in
Lindsay Posner’s nonetheless excellent Old Vic production, it delivers a laugh almost every 30 seconds. There isn’t a stand-up comedian on the planet that can match that for two and a half hours.
Farce usually takes time to wind itself up into orchestrated meltdown. Frayn’s masterstroke is to make his set-up a farce in its own right, namely Nothing On, a fictional stinker of a play chock full of sardines, fake Sheikhs and skimpies.
We see its hapless touring production from three perspectives: on its dress rehearsal the day before opening night, behind the scenes in Ashton-under-Lyne a month on, and, finally, it’s last mangled
performance in Stockton-on-Tees. Frayn’s skill is such that the jokes in the first act, which seem so fully-formed, leave gaps for exponential comic exploitation in the second and third. Props go awry,
cues are missed and understudies charge onstage misguidedly, but the show, so they say, must go on. First it frays. Then it implodes.
Ironically, the only course of action is to stick firmly to the script. Posner does just that and concocts some superlative sequences: Jamie Glover’s Garry Lejeune waddling about with his laces tied
together, Amy Nuttall’s ditsy actress on autopilot falling out-of-sync with actual events, Jonathan Coy’s incessant nosebleeds at any glimpse of violence.
While Posner makes the most of moments, his production sometimes struggles with momentum, particularly in the wordless backstage sequence of the second act. At its best, this should leave us helpless, but here it moves too quickly, blurring the narrative as we’re not sure quite where to look. I suspect blame lies with the narrowness of the Old Vic stage, which prevents the crucial
half-second of breathing space.
However, even just short of its summit, Noises Off remains one of the seven wonders of post-war theatre. Posner handles the spoof element with particular relish and the fictional farce is creakier than the boards on which it plays.
In a top-notch cast, Celia Imrie disintegrates delightfully as the show grinds on. Spritely and balletic in the dress, she limps on in Stockton like a horse waiting to be put out of its misery. Janie Dee
makes a perfect head-girl as Belinda Blair, desperate to keep the show on the road, Paul Ready is hilariously hapless as stage manager Tim and Karl Johnson’s Selsdon delivers his opening line ("No bars, no burglar alarms") as if it were "To be or not to be."
Most noteworthy, given how difficult the text’s prescriptiveness makes individual interpretation, is Robert Glenister’s director Lloyd Dallas. Usually a sympathetic sane-man drowning in idiots, Glenister
makes him a spiteful, snarling failure and adds some rare fight to Frayn’s delirious froth.
As much a masterpiece as the Mona Lisa, Noises Off is one of the very few plays you must see before you die.