Review: Noises Off (Lyric Hammersmith Theatre)

Michael Frayn’s farce returns in a new revival

The cast of Noises Off
The cast of Noises Off
© Helen Maybanks

People go to the theatre for many reasons – to be entertained, provoked, informed. But there is really nothing quite as delicious as going to the theatre to laugh until you cry so much you can hardly see the stage. Which is exactly why you watch Michael Frayn's indestructible meta-farce Noises Off, in which everything goes wrong in a very controlled manner.

On press night even a genuine technical fault, which paused the action and added a level of meta to the meta, couldn't derail the action, which is written and plotted with iron precision yet is as light and full of air as a balloon. It is quite simply a masterpiece

First seen 37 years ago, its structure is deceptively simple. In the first act we see a not-very good acting company rehearsing a production of a farce called Nothing On; in the second, we watch the backstage action as human passions wreak havoc while the play attempts to go on; in the third, we witness a performance where the off-stage chaos has finally infiltrated and destroyed the on-stage action.

The original production – also at the Lyric – starring Patricia Routledge, Paul Eddington and Nicky Henson is now legendary. I wish I had seen it. But this version, directed with verve by Jeremy Herrin, and neatly designed by Max Jones, is the most purely funny I have seen. It unfolds at incredible pace, yet there is great attention to the detail of each character and of the levers of farce itself; it is characteristic that inside the real programme, there is one that supposedly advertises Nothing On, complete with portentous programme essays on the nature of farce and period advertising.

What I adore about Frayn's writing, is how gives Noises Off its own inexorable logic. If a character – in this case the pathetic Freddie (wonderfully rubber legged and lugubrious Jonathan Cullen) announces in act one that he goes weak at the sight of violence and blood, you can bet your bottom dollar that by the end of the play he will be crumpled in a heap at exposure to both. The mechanics are cemented into place which allows the volatile human emotions to fly.

The actors all perform with great commitment and flair. As Dotty Otley, the ageing actress who has sunk her savings into this last doomed tour in the hope of "putting a little something by", Meera Syal has fun with the contrast between the bumbling cleaner she is playing and the sophisticated woman she aspires to be; Debra Gillett is a delight as the Pollyanna-ish Belinda, always ready with a piece of gossip and a kind word, until even she is worn down by events. Enyi Okoronkwo cements his comic reputation as the harassed Tim, dazed with tiredness and panic; Amy Morgan is beautifully poised as Brooke, one leg of a disastrous love triangle, whose desperate searches for her contact lenses punctuate the action.

Lloyd Owen is equally terrific as the increasingly despairing director, loping around the auditorium barking instructions, trying to avoid the consequences of his desperate philandering. The moment when he suggests that Simon Rouse's selectively deaf, alcoholic old-timer is like "Myra Hess playing on through the air raids" is priceless.

But that's the joy of the play – the supple way that it mixes extreme verbal dexterity and humour with the broadest of slapstick. When Lois Chimimba's stage manager just sits weeping instead of calling the cues or when Daniel Rigby's pompous, enraged Garry falls down the stairs it is not sophisticated humour, but each pratfall in the accelerating mayhem is entirely earned.

It's earned by this production too. Herrin and choreographer Joyce Henderson orchestrate the almost-silent chaos of the second act in particular with astonishing grace, and bring the entire thing to a glorious, desperate close. I did wonder what a young person who has never experienced the pleasures of a trouser-dropping farce would make of it all; but from the laughter at the close, it appears that the appeal of Noises Off is enduring for all the ages.