Touring – reviewed at Theatre Royal, Bath
Millions know it by now, but in case like my enthralled companions last night you aren’t among them, grant me a moment or skip the the penultimate paragraph. Noises Off has been a national treasure since 1982, written by Michael Frayn after realising that the hurtling backstage business of doors, props and actors under stress is funnier than most actual farces. He wrote a squib called EXITS, the great producer Michael Codron encouraged something fuller.
You see an irritable dress rehearsal of a touring farce, the imaginary “Nothing On”. Lloyd the producer yells from the stalls beside you. After an interval with the set reversed, you watch from backstage one month into a gruelling provincial run, with cast relationships fracturing: once the scene begins they are, of course, wordless backstage and able only to air their murderous feelings in brilliantly spiteful mime and sabotage while the familiar lines echo beyond the flats. A brief breakneck change, then from the front you see the play’s dissolution on the final night at Stockton-on-Tees.
The characters are an affectionate portrait of thespian types, gloriously described in the programme: I am especially fond of “Garry Lejeune”, proudly credited as having at drama school won the “Laetitia Daintyman Prize for Violence”. There is a fading but still glamorous and gossipy trouper Belinda, an even more faded veteran, Dottie, funding the tour from her savings and playing the charlady, a dim ingenue, an exasperating leading man, an older equivalent who has lost both his nerve and his wife, and dear old Selsden: 60 on the boards and the bottle, kept from his habit of hiding whisky in every corner only by the vigilance of the rest of the cast and the heroic, exhausted stage crew Poppy and Tim.
The whole thing is a love song to the stage and the high days of touring rep, and indeed to actors. For it is notable that for all the excellent jokes about actorishness in the rehearsal scene, none of the issues within the fictional company are the usual sneers about prestige or stardom and all-about-Eve-ery. Just ordinary love affairs. They are us, they are troupers, struggling with the props and stuck doors and slippery dropped sardines of life, needing panicky ad-libs, rescuing one another more often than sabotaging. You have to love them all, flawed beings earning a living while trapped in an unforgiving structure, under judgement. And, let me murmur, earning it at a time before actors and theatre managers were so worried about “safe spaces”, disapproving of liaisons between older directors and ingenues, and taught to treat vicious directorial sarcasm as “emotional abuse”. Alexander Hanson’s suavely irritable Lloyd wouldn’t get away with it now. Not without an editorial condemnation in The Stage.
Of all plays it depends on pin-sharp timing and directorial precision, and Lindsay Posner, who previously directed the Old Vic production, fulfils that absolutely. It also needs actors adept at physical comedy, willing to fall down the odd staircase or behind a sofa, and able to do all this middling-badly as the fictional actors, and brilliantly as themselves. Class acts, in other words.
Some are relishing their seniority by doddering for England: Felicity Kendal is old Dotty, Matthew Kelly a pleasingly boozy old Selsden. All are terrific, though I had a particular tendresse for Tracy-Ann Oberman as the authoritatively blousy Belinda, fount of all gossip and – in curiously touching moments nicely maternal – both backstage in the jealous chaos and inventing lines desperately in the last scene. Her dazzling desperate smile in the final moments is alone worth the ticket.
Too many pleasures to list. But seeing it for the fourth or fifth time in my life I was still noticing nuggets: like the way Frayn can write awful traditional farce jokes, tired double-entendres and trouser-drops which make much of the audience laugh, a bit guiltily, while seconds later giving us a real human-insight joke which makes everyone laugh with proper joy because that trouser-drop was, face it, a small part of the larger human sadness. Equally, I had never quite taken in before the monstrousness of Dottie, or the heroic comradeship with which the whole cast and crew repeatedly rally round at speed to keep Selsden and the whisky bottle apart and prevent the wholesale emotional dissolution of poor Freddie. It’s just all very beautiful.
Theatreroyal.org.uk. To 1 oct. Then Cambridge, then Brighton