at the Old Vic Theatre, Wednesday 28th December 2011
In times of austerity and pessimism, we can all do with a little light relief. Laughter, it is said, helps to relieve stress and fight depression. Thank your chosen deity, then, for Lindsay Posner’s production of Michael Frayn’s farcical masterpiece, Noises Off. Even if you enter the theatre after a miserable day and find it hard to allow yourself to suspend disbelief, the Old Vic will make you snort, guffaw, chuckle, groan, giggle and collapse on the floor at some point during the proceedings (not necessarily in that order). This kind of thing ought to be prescribed on the NHS.
But first, let’s get the bad bits out of the way (there aren’t many, bear with me). I think most people would agree that the play, which sees the fictional Nothing On just before, during, and at the end of its tour, takes a while to properly get going. The first act sees the ‘director’, Lloyd Dallas (Robert Glenister) struggling through a technical rehearsal of the play’s first act, but at this point everything is fairly tame. This, of course, is necessary, but one would be forgiven for not expecting much of the second half as the ice creams are being sold. The play also seems to have dated somewhat, and one could argue that this sort of production is exactly the kind of thing the establishment want to see performed: safe, non-political, traditional farce is hardly going to make people rise up.
Yes, yes, this is “pure entertainment”, and for what it’s worth you won’t see a better farce around at the moment (except, perhaps, One Man, Two Guv’nors). What Noises Off does it does better than anyone else. The second and third acts, where we see the same play, but from the wings and on its “last legs” respectively, is pure theatrical nitrous oxide. Frayn’s play takes all our preconceptions about show business and exaggerates them a hundred fold. The ‘showmances’ which have blossomed and nose-dived throughout the tour are exacerbated and interwoven among the action onstage. It is a farce within a farce, or even a farce on a farce, and focussing on everything that’s going on takes up enough energy as it is, let alone what’s required of us to keep our diaphragms pumping along so we can laugh.
This cast must be on some kind of steroids in order to keep going. Celia Imrie is both majestic and pathetic as the ageing star Dotty Otley, and Frederick Fellowes’ tragic attempts at reconciliation are played touchingly by Jonathan Coy. Amy Nuttall and Aisling Loftus as Nothing On‘s alluring-but-thick young actress Brooke Ashton and the quiet-but-smart stage manager Poppy Norton-Taylor both fight it out (though lord knows why) for their director’s attention, who Glenister shows to be a megalomaniac control-freak. Jamie Glover, Janie Dee, Paul Ready and Karl Johnson all give wonderful turns too, and the switch between actor and character is remarkable to watch. If you find this review confusing, then it’s done justice to the whirlwind nature of the show.
None of this would be possible without Posner’s direction, which manages to make the whole thing understandable through careful characterisation and choreography with help from Kate Waters. Peter McKintosh’s living room design, complete with multiple doors, is literally turned around for the second act, giving us a stages glimpse into the backstage world. Michael Bruce’s music and Paul Pyant’s lighting are reminiscent of many trips to an am-dram farce, but come into their own when we watch the production from behind.
The few minor quibbles with the nature of the production are more than outweighed by its many merits. This is farce at its very best, extracting the ridiculousness of everyday life for all to see. It reminds us that even when we believe we’re objectively watching a farce playing out by those around us, we’re likely to be just as involved as everyone else. But it’s also a damned good laugh. It’s surprising, in fact, that the Old Vic don’t have first aiders lining the aisles with extra oxygen and first aid kids, for, although laughter is most definitely the best medicine, if you watch this you may just die laughing.