There’s nothing like a spot of theatrical trouser-dropping and door-slamming to brighten up a cold winter’s evening, and that’s exactly what you’ll find at the Old Vic.
In a programme note, Mark Lawson says the 1982 West End production of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off was “one of only two times in my theatre-going career that I have seen people literally falling into the aisles with helpless laughter.” The other, he says, was the National Theatre hit One Man, Two Guvnors, which is currently playing in the West End.
Indeed, there’s a lot of comedy in Theatreland currently – The Ladykillers added to the crop last week – and Noises Off makes an interesting comparison with One Man, Two Guvnors. Both use all the classic mechanisms of farce, but while the latter is actually set in the 1960s, before Noises Off was written, it is very much a production for the modern day. Noises Off, however, is an unashamedly old-fashioned lark, and Lindsay Posner’s production plays this to the hilt.
The plot, as Robert Glenister’s Lloyd so succinctly – and wearily – puts it, centres around “doors and sardines”. He is the exasperated director of a company of actors who are staging a production of a comedy, Nothing On, on tour. We meet them in Weston-Super-Mare on a late-night dress rehearsal prior to the show’s first performance. As they perform Act One, with all the mistakes, mix-ups and incidents that every director must fear prior to opening night, their real personalities slip out from under their characters.
So there’s Brooke, the young actress who acts by numbers but is oddly vacant in real life; the constantly inarticulate Garry, who can’t finish a sentence that isn’t written for him; and veteran thespian Dotty, whose relationship with Garry threatens the flimsy harmony of the cast. Frayn then throws in an alcoholic cast member, a put-upon stage manager, an actor with a propensity for nose bleeds and several romantic entanglements, setting up a fraught tour for the Nothing On cast.
Frayn’s three-act set-up plays out this scenario to increasingly farcical effect. In each part the first act of Nothing On is staged in a different location – the tour progresses to Ashton-under-Lyme and Stockton-on-Tees – and each time we see it with an extra level of knowingness, as the cast’s private relationships and difficulties impact upon their public performance.
It could be repetitive, and at times the door-slamming gets a little wearisome, particularly in the backstage set-up of the second act, however the energy of the cast sees it through to the end. Posner has gathered a classy ensemble including Jamie Glover as Garry, whose inarticulacy starts to infect his performance as Nothing On disintegrates, and Robert Glenister as the pompous, sleazy director Lloyd. Celia Imrie shows off her flare for physical comedy as Dotty, who’s just trying to keep track of her sardines, while an under-used Janie Dee tries to keep things together as Belinda.
While sardines and doors might be a little retro for some, Noises Off had plenty of people crying with laughter – if not quite rolling in the aisles – at the Old Vic last night.