‘Over-engineered production’: NOISES OFF – Lyric Hammersmith ★★★

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Lyric Hammersmith, London – until 27 July 2019

In 1982, I went to the Lyric Hammersmith to see Michael Frayn’s new farce Noises Off featuring Patricia Routledge, Paul Eddington – I took my parents who were horrified to hear ‘that nice actor from The Good Life’ drop the F-bomb – and Nicky Henson.

For those who don’t know, it’s a potboiler bedroom farce seen from the audience viewpoint and then from backstage as we learn more and more about the romances and rows between cast members. Thirty-seven years later, I’m back to see it re-staged with Meera Syal, Lloyd Owen and Daniel Rigby in a rather over-engineered production by Jeremy Herrin.

Only one of us has aged: the structure, the material and the tight choreography of the second act which is written almost entirely in stage directions and mimed dialogue, are all impeccable.

Not so sure about the casting. The genius of Patricia Routledge as the orginal Dotty Otley was that she was outwardly respectable and matronly, but with a facial tic and a gift for physical comedy that had every plate of sardines delivered or removed with a gale of laughter from the whole house. It’s the sort of character she later modulated into Hyacinth Bucket.

Not so Syal who seems less manic and more earthbound than the dottiest of Dotties I’ve seen over the years this piece has been revived. Her backstage romance with Rigby doesn’t seem convincing either. So you’re left with the characters who play the ‘stock’ repertory company characters – the ingénue, the aged alcoholic, the too-vivacious leading lady and the character actor who demands motivation even to walk through a door.

Thirty years ago they’d have been instantly recognisable in repertory theatres from Sunderland to Swanage, but since rep has all but gone from regional theatre, they now feel as dated as J B Priestley’s Good Companions. Few now remember the doyens of farce like Brian Rix or Ben Travers, and the genre is sent up in more contemporary ways by The Play That Goes Wrong and its successors.

Lloyd Owen as the laconic director roves the auditorium between jaundiced interventions, perhaps the warmest and best-acted character, and Jonathan Cullen excels as the actor who, even after thirty years on the stage, still isn’t finding himself or his role.

The Art of Coarse Acting is not dead.

until August 3

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Johnny Fox
‘Johnny Fox’ studied Theatre at Lancaster University and Journalism at City before realising there was no money in either profession and concentrating instead on interior design for investment banks in Singapore, New York and Moscow. Back home, he now writes mostly about theatre, mostly in London, for arts and events websites. He blogs independently at www.johnnyfox.london.
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Johnny Fox
‘Johnny Fox’ studied Theatre at Lancaster University and Journalism at City before realising there was no money in either profession and concentrating instead on interior design for investment banks in Singapore, New York and Moscow. Back home, he now writes mostly about theatre, mostly in London, for arts and events websites. He blogs independently at www.johnnyfox.london.

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