Noises Off in the West End review – the ultimate farce is note-perfect
Michael Frayn's comedy is back in the West End
"It's all bags, boxes, doors – and words." The exclamation of a struggling actor in the midst of trying to remember his entrances and exits in Michael Frayn's Noises Off sums up the play. It's all it is, plus sardines and the entire gamut of human emotion. But from these ingredients, Frayn whips up one of the most joyous farces ever written. Since it first appeared in 1982, it's played more or less continuously all over the world, in amateur and professional productions. This version, starring Felicity Kendal, and originally seen in Bath last year, is the fourth major London revival since the turn of the century. Each one has reduced me to laughter so helpless I reach the point where I can barely see the stage for crying.
But when I stop laughing, I also notice just how supremely clever Frayn's writing is. It's not just the farce that lands with the precision of a highly-tuned Formula One racing car, but also the words, each falling into the chaos with the power of a fuel injection. Its magical mixture of physical and verbal comedy is underpinned by an understanding of the human condition – of tangled loves and sad lives and everyone's determination to do their best – that make it supremely humane.
This – and some delicate rewriting over the years – is what makes it seem ageless. The play pivots on the idea that a travelling group of players, led by Kendal's Dotty Otley, who has sunk her retirement money into the production, are on a tour of the regions in a production of a rickety farce called Nothing On, which features an ingenue in very few clothes, an estate agent trying to get her into bed and a man in tax exile from the Inland Revenue.
The three acts of Noises Off show this deathless masterpiece from three points of view: the final dress rehearsal where everything goes wrong on stage, backstage at a performance in Ashton-under-Lyne where the intimate lives of the company (and their seething passions) create a dumbshow of chaos that threatens to interrupt their exits and entrances, and finally at a matinee in Stockton on Tees where the mayhem has erupted onstage and now derails the performance.
That entire world of touring rep, of friendships formed on the road in Peebles, and indeed of lecherous directors who are juggling their relationships with young actors for their own nefarious ends, has vanished now. No-one could behave like Alexander Hanson's sophisticated yet slimy Lothario Lloyd Dallas (" I'm just the one with an English degree") and get away with it. But the sheer brio of the writing and the physicality of the action keeps Noises Off forever fresh.
Director Lindsay Posner, who also directed the Old Vic's revival in 2011, understands in his bones that the key to making Noises Off funny is timing and panic. It works at its best when the actors remain committed to performing Nothing On, while simultaneously using all their dramatic skill to conjure the madness going on around it.
It's a tightrope act of performance, wonderfully mastered here. Kendall is particular good in the almost-silent second act, when Dotty's change in her affections from one leading man to the other, has created pandemonium; her telegraphed affection for one and fury with the other is a reminder of just what a terrific comic performer she is. But it's Joseph Millson as the spurned Garry, rising to a frenzy of jealousy and fury, falling down stairs and tripping up them with a fantastic combination of control and abandon who gives the last two acts their almost terrifying energy; in Jonathan Coy's vague and fragile Freddie, he has the perfect foil. I particularly adore the way that Freddie's fear of the sight of blood, which dominates the last two acts, has been so beautifully telegraphed in the first.
Around this central trio, Tracy-Ann Oberman's all-knowing Belinda flaps like a motherly hen, rushing hither and thither to prevent Matthew Kelly's old-timer Selsdon from finding the whisky he has hidden around the set, vamping with increasing desperation to keep the show on the road. It's a wonderfully funny performance, full of real heart. Sasha Frost too invests Brooke with some proper personality while Pepter Lunkuse and Huburt Burton, as the youngsters behind the scenes, bullied by all-comers, lend lovely support.
The entire thing breezes away the January blues with glorious brilliance. It is an utter treasure.