The best farces employ ruthless logic to stop audiences asking questions like, “Why are characters behaving in so deranged a fashion?” And the elaborate, seemingly foolproof backstage sequence of Michael Frayn’s 1982 play “Noises Off” is routinely upheld as the greatest scene in the finest farce. So it’s peculiar to find oneself disengaging from Lindsay Posner’s production to ask a question in that very scene. Yet even that disengagement doesn’t wholly deflate proceedings. For the rest of the evening, expert acting by a fine cast yields plenty of laughter.
There’s a glorious inexorability to Frayn’s precision-engineered scenario. At the top of the show, an under-rehearsed bunch of testy actors is trying to get through a rickety dress rehearsal of third-rate farce “Nothing On.” The second act switches the set around so we see the backstage horrors with the cast at loggerheads struggling through a matinee on tour. Finally we witness the barely controlled chaos of the ramshackle final performance.
You don’t need any connection with the theater to appreciate the dramatic trajectory. What makes “Noises Off” so accessible — and uproariously funny — is everyone’s defiance in the face of impending disaster. The idea that the show must go on is paramount. Fear of failure and public shame stalks the fictional acting company, who are desperately trying to keep everything afloat against mounting odds.
The stakes, in other words, are high. And in the first act Posner maintains an ideal pace with well-honed performances giving comic zest to all the necessary exposition.
It’s in the second act that things go awry. We’re watching backstage as the cast rush in and out of the country house set during their performance of “Nothing On.” In the center of the set for the play-within-the-play is a large window. In previous productions, the actors have had to keep ducking beneath the window in order not to be seen by their “Nothing On” audience. That considerably ratchets up the actors’ agony, and the audience’s hilarity.
Here, however, the actors are constantly to-ing and fro-ing in front of the window regardless of the fact that presumably their audience can see them. It’s a major incongruity that keeps breaking the backstage spell. Tension is broken, and the building hysteria slows.
Mercifully, the meticulousness of the cast means that momentum is gradually reasserted. In the third act (as rewritten in 2000 for Jeremy Sams’ sensational National Theater production, which transferred to Broadway) they scale the giddy heights of Frayn’s script.
As lothario Garry, Jamie Glover reveals a real gift for physical comedy, not least in his preposterous, high-speed teetering when a fellow actor ties his shoelaces together out of spite. Marvelous, bright-eyed Celia Imrie wins laughs throughout with the merest purse of her lips and Paul Ready is winningly sincere as the hapless stage manager.
Armed with local rave reviews, producers may hope to repeat the former production’s rollout to the West End and Gotham. Although selling impressively at the Old Vic, its future life faces stiff competish in both towns from the more consistently hilarious “One Man, Two Guvnors.” But as economic woes outside rise, surefire comedy in the theater may well prove a depression buster.