Some 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.
The 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.
And 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.
Nothing 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.
Apart 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.
Although 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.
It’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