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Nothing On Noises Off

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The middle Act One of Michael Frayn's three Act Ones in Noises Off -- the first in rehearsal, the second backstage, the third in a disastrous performance -- takes place at a Wednesday matinee with an elderly audience.

So it was no suprise at all that the eruption of Robert Glenister's incensed director at yesterday's Old Vic Wednesday matinee with an elderly audience should be the comic highlight of Lindsay Posner's well-drilled production: as the stage management call conflicting instructions front of house, and pensioners panic in confusion, Glenister yells that some of them don't have very long to live...

How the wrinklies roared in delighted agreement! There had indeed been a stampede to the lavatories in the interval, always a sure sign of a senior clientele, another being the docile encampment of almost all of them in their seats fifteen minutes at least before curtain up.

Posner's production is well acted and sharply despatched -- and you'd be mad to miss it before it comes off in March, especially if you've never seen the play before -- but it doesn't quite have the killer delirium of Michael Blakemore's original production, and there were one or two superior performances in Jeremy Sams' National Theatre revival twelve years ago.

But one shouldn't quibble, Sybil, when the cleverest and funniest British farce of the last century (it opened in 1982 and ran for five years in the West End) is back on tap in the same season as One Man, Two Guvnors, The Ladykillers, Matilda, Jerusalem (finishing this weekend) and Alan Bennett's The Madness of King George ("what, what"), which opens after previews on Monday week.

That's a tremendous strike rate of "kwalitee" entertainment in the commercial sector, even though most of it originated in the subsidised theatre, including the Frayn, which started at the Lyric Hammersmith. Producers spoke up in a feature in yesterday's Times on how to make straight plays pay in the West End.

It's clear that fine actors who aren't star names -- Michael Pennington, for instance, or Antony Sher -- do not guarantee box office success, and Nica Burns bemoans the fact that a pair of Ronald Harwood plays that she imported from Chichester with strong reviews and ensemble casts did not take off.

Instead, they were taken off, but only after the noble Nica ran them for the whole of the cast contract at a huge personal loss (noble Nica became nobbled Nica): "You just can't get the press interested in ensembles," she says, contradicting herself, as if it were all out fault, despite the reviews. The fact is, the public are only interested in something like a Ronald Harwood play if Albert Finney is in it (as he used to be, regularly). They're too boring. And it's a highly moot point if even Jerusalem would have been a hit had not Mark Rylance broken through at last -- and probably for just that play -- into something like stardom. He's still not a household name.

In the case of Noises Off, it's undoubtedly the play making the running, not the actors. There's no "name" recognition in the cast for the elderly Old Vic audience, few of whom would even link Celia Imrie with Absolutely Fabulous or Dinner Ladies on television. I had no idea, until I read the programme, that Amy Nuttall, who plays the dumb ingenue in plum underwear, was in Downton Abbey.

Which is why David Suchet appearing soon in Long Day's Journey Into Night is a no-brainer. He's not only a high profile copper-bottomed star name because of Poirot on television; he's also a brilliant stage actor, and it's no accident at all that he should follow his great performance in one Olivier role a few years back (in Rattigan's Man and Boy) with what might well be another in a second great Olivier role, James Tyrone.

It's only when they get to the theatre that the audience will realise that the play lasts three hours; but, if it's good, they can congratulate themselves even more for having sat through it and survived. And on having seen a genuine star performance from someone they love and recognise.


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