Review – Noises Off, Garrick Theatre, 27th December 2019

81545680_1065869243748312_2955591279569797120_nSome shows never go away. Sometimes that can be regrettable; sometimes remarkable; on a few occasions, totally wonderful. Noises Off, I’m delighted to say, falls into that third category. Michael Frayn’s marvellous farce, that never progresses our hapless cast of TV B-listers past the first act of Robin Housemonger’s clearly pathetic Nothing On, stars TV’s Dotty “I can ‘ardly ‘old me lolly up” Otley – and she’s sunk her life savings into this “investment”. Will she get a return on her risk? Will she buffalo.

DottyThe date – 15th April 1982; I had a front row seat at the Savoy for the newly opened Noises Off, starring Paul Eddington and Patricia Routledge; and I thought it was one of the funniest things I’d ever seen or was ever likely to see. Four years later, and still at the Savoy, I introduced young Miss Duncansby (now Mrs Chrisparkle) to the joys of Stephanie Cole and Hugh Paddick in the cast; from then till now, we still love to intone our own posh-voiced ladies and gentlemen, would you please take your seats, as the performance will begin in one minute instructions, at the drop of a hat, whenever the moment sees fit. In 2008 we saw it again at the Milton Keynes Theatre, with Maggie Steed on fine form, and it had lost none of its spark. And now it’s back again, and so are we, revelling both in the comedy of today and the nostalgia of yesteryear.

LloydAnd it’s great to see that the cast of TV’s On the Zebras has-beens is still as useless as ever. At first we see them struggling through the Dress (“we’re all thinking of it as the Tech, Lloyd love”) Rehearsal before the opening at the Grand Theatre, Weston-super-Mare; then we see them at daggers with each other during a vengeful midweek matinee at the Theatre Royal, Goole; and finally in exhausted devastation during the final performance at the Municipal Theatre, Stockton on Tees.

Belinda and FrederickNothing On is clearly a dreadful little play, the last vestiges of the mildly titillating sex comedy genre that soared in the 60s and 70s with masterpieces (and I mean that) like Boeing Boeing, No Sex Please We’re British and There’s a Girl in my Soup. Today these have dated very badly – and in fact the recently planned tour of Boeing Boeing has had to be cancelled due to poor advance sales. Shame really, as it’s an exceptionally funny and beautifully structured play. I daresay Feydeau would have struggled to get bums on seats if he was writing nowadays. When Noises Off first hit the stage in 1982, that style was already on the way out, but still familiar, and thus ripe for Frayn to satirise mercilessly. I would not be remotely surprised if any twenty-something theatregoers seeing Noises Off today hadn’t got a clue as to what Nothing On was all about.

GarryApart from taking the mick out of those old sex comedies, Noises Off assembles a relatively ghastly cast of creative types with recognisable foibles, weaknesses, idiosyncrasies and so on. The faux-polite leading lady, the tense and irritable ingénu, the arrogant director, the well-meaning buffoon, the old sot; they’re all there, thrust together in a survival battle. And this creates Noises Off’s great strength; it’s utterly hilarious. Every possible theatrical disaster that could befall that woeful cast happens with dire consequences; to anyone who’s ever been on a stage it’s your worst nightmare come true. Physical pratfalls, mental and physical violence, drunk colleagues, nosebleeds, missing/not working/broken props/scenery, inappropriate affairs and jealous lovers all vie for prominence. And, whilst on the face of it, you might suspect it would be too forced, too unreal, too slapstick, too unsubtle to be taken seriously – in fact it’s such a superb piece of writing, requiring a high level of choreographically excellent performance, that only the most sour-faced misery-guts wouldn’t bellow with laughter ecstatically through it. That second Act, in particular, is simply a perfect nugget of comic genius. I was slightly sorry that this current production, directed by Jeremy Herrin, has done away with the visual “duck” joke in Act Two. If you remember it from previous productions, I’m sure you’d too be disappointed that it’s missing. If you’ve never seen it before then I’ll not explain it – suffice to say that it can be made even funnier.

It's all going wrongAlthough it’s a play that’s always attracted star performers, there are few plays that require greater ensemble skills and attitude, and the cast do indeed throw everything at it to make it succeed. Meera Syal plays Dotty as a rather sweet old thing, until her anger is riled, that is; Lloyd Owen’s Director Lloyd is a sorely-tried, hard-nosed kind of guy – very tired, very unhappy and more acerbic than I remember from previous productions. Lisa McGrillis emphasises all of Brooke’s vacant automaton acting to terrific effect, and there’s very nice support from Adrian Richards as the long-suffering Tim, the Stage Manager. But, for me, the best characterisations come from Sarah Hadland as the kindly and impossibly positive Belinda Blair, and Daniel Rigby as the tongue-tied, gently seething Garry Lejeune.

BrookeIt’s the perfect show for a holiday season; strenuously funny, and with plenty of excellent performances to admire; and you can pick and choose just how much you want to extrapolate from it about the nature of human existence to the extent that you can be bothered. Consider it deep, or consider it shallow, there’s loads to enjoy here, and I’m glad we caught it again before it closes on 4th January.

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

Review – One Man Two Guvnors, New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, 22nd October 2011

One Man Two GuvnorsWe booked this on 26th May because the word coming out of the National Theatre was that this was a smasheroony. Five months on and you don’t need me to tell you this is a fantastically funny show with some extraordinary feats of physical comedy. It already boasts a great reputation, and its West End transfer is assured of success. It’s not perfect – but so refreshingly laugh inducing that it doesn’t matter.

Written by Richard Bean (whose The Big Fellah I thought was the best new play of last year), it’s an adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s 1746 Commedia dell’Arte based “Servant of Two Masters”. It’s now set in Brighton in 1963, amongst a criminal underworld of petty thieves and villains getting bumped off. The plot is highly silly but highly entertaining, totally incredible and so enjoyable that you’re completely happy to suspend all reasonable disbelief. It’s a script full of character, chock full with hilarious happenings and good jokes, and I reckon it deserves to earn Mr Bean enough to retire on (although let’s hope he doesn’t).

James CordenJames Corden’s central performance is astonishingly athletic for a big chap. He plays Francis Hensall, who blunders his way into working for two guvnors who must remain a secret from each other; but of course he confuses their jobs and this leads him up all sorts of farcical garden paths. With terrific comic timing, and a super rapport with the audience whom he both takes into his confidence but also hoodwinks too, he’s simply a joy to watch. At times he appears to come out of character and address the audience directly as himself, in a manner I haven’t seen since the good old days of Eric Sykes and Jimmy Edwards in Big Bad Mouse (if you go back that far). This is very nicely subversive of standard theatrical practice, and feels very refreshing.

Oliver ChrisThe final scene before the interval will probably go down in history as one of the most hilarious ever seen on stage. Suffice it to say, not everything is at seems, but it culminates in one of the most astonishing coups de theatre you’re ever likely to witness. Of the three apparent interactions with members of the audience, throughout the whole play, I’m pretty sure only one is 100% genuine, If You Get My Drift. But it’s all carried off with amazing aplomb, that you only admire James Corden’s performance the more for it.

Daniel RigbyHe has excellent support from a gifted company of comic actors. Oliver Chris is excellent as one of his guvnors, Stanley, an ineffectual toff using posh expletives but who can be a thug when he wants. I also loved the performance of Daniel Rigby as Alan, the wannabe actor fiancé of Claire Lams’ Pauline, the thick daughter of local gangland boss Charlie. Claire LamsHis pompous posing makes such an effective contrast with the cockney vagabonds around him, and her innocent stupidity is another great comic element. And then you have the scene stealing performance of Tom Edden as Alfie, the ancient waiter, whose hands seem to have become detached from his arms and whose entire physical presence is a ridiculous delight. If you thought Julie Walters’ “two soups” waitress was past it, you’ve seen nothing yet!

Tom EddenTo be honest, the whole cast puts heart and soul into it and there isn’t a weak link. On the matinee performance we saw, Fred Ridgeway, as Charlie, seemed to corpse in almost every scene, so that when other actors came on stage to join in they tended to be thrown of course by his apparent inability to stay calm! Naturally, this only added to the general hilarity.

Fred RidgewayMy only gripe – and it’s minor – is that the music that runs through the show slightly puts the brakes on the activity. The performance starts with the (very enjoyable) skiffle group doing four songs, concert style. Whilst I appreciate it can take a while for everyone to settle down (and it takes an inordinate amount of time at the Alex in Birmingham to get from street to seat) I did feel it was too much. When the fourth song started I asked Mrs Chrisparkle if she thought the show was ever going to get going. The group also sings while the staging is getting changed between scenes. Sometimes, cast members join the group for eccentric solos, which is very funny, but I still felt it made the whole thing a little less fluid than it could be. Very minor gripe though.

This is definitely, as they used to say, going to run and run. A top notch comedy performed by a dream team. I don’t envy the producers’ problem of recasting once this lot have had enough.