Lyric Hammersmith, London – until 27 July 2019
It felt like a pilgrimage, homage to pay. Thirty-seven years ago Michael Frayn’s greatest of comedies, a wicked love-song to the great age of touring rep, premiered in this very theatre. Since then it has taken London and Broadway crowns and swept the world in – as the author muses – often some pretty ramshackle versions. “In Prague they performed the play for some ten years without Act 3 and no one noticed until I arrived… One Christmas Eve in Sicily two different touring productions turned up in Catania at the same time.”
I am glad that before various grander outings I saw it first, in the late 80s, in one of those potentially ramshackle versions. It was Jill Freud’s Southwold rep, and rather good, but to this day I cannot understand how they managed to rig up the full front-view set and then, after the interval, its backstage reverse. Because St Edmunds Hall is a venue so small that sometimes the only way for an actor to re-enter stage right is to dart out through the churchyard in the rain. But they did it.
I mention this – though I’ve seen it twice since on grander stages – to emphasise the sheer love this play sparks. Frayn shows us a theatre company in chaotic dress rehearsal of a banal farce, with doors and sardine-plate props and panicking couples, deftly sketching the cast’s cross-currents of personality, relationships and practical difficulties.
After an interval he reverses the scenery so we see them a month into the tour, from backstage. As the show is half-heard behind the curtain the players, tired and mutely furious, flare into personal conflict. Then for the brief last act we are out front again watching their total dissolution at the end of the tour. In doing this Frayn lays open human life’s compromises, inadequacies and instabilities, and reminds us that much of our existence tends to be a desperate attempt to put on a show and keep our end up in public. In relieved joy, we recognise it and laugh.
We laugh very hard. Around me in the second act last night several people seeing it for the first time were actually rendered helpless. It was press night and therefore, because the gods of farce are very thorough in their ways, on that very night Jeremy Herrin’s faultless production suffered a brief – and real – unscheduled blackout near the end of the backstage act. The audience could hardly contain its glee. It’s rarel that an electrical cock-up actually enhances a show, but it did. Either it could be called tautology – a theatre-breakdown in the depiction of a theatre-breakdown – but I prefer to think of it as an oxymoron: because here was the most tightly disciplined and controlled of productions being cruelly deprived of control.
All the cast are bang on the nail, though I must single out Meera Syal as Dotty, playing the old housekeeper, for her physical deftness in moving. In character she does the shuffling stage-crone thing, but when pausing over a sardine plate confusion and shouting to the director in the house (who, blissfully, was striding around right next to my seat) she uncoils like a serpent to become the magisterial old diva she is. As the show goes on, more and more conflicted, her Dotty sometimes forgets to shuffle and then suddenly remembers and we choke laughing.
Jonathan Cullen too is is very fine too as poor Freddie, struggling with his personal life and nosebleeds, and Debra Gillett catches the cooing, caring, reconciling infuriatingness of Belinda to a T. And good old Jeremy Herrin makes sure to milk the final moments before and after the third act with some wicked curtain-jokes.
And even when it’s over, you can – as always in this show – take away and cherish the insert in the programme with a spoof- intellectual analysis of the nature of farce (bit to be be reproduced in any Almeida or NT programme without exciting comment) and the company biographies. I cherish in particular Belinda’s stage CV beginning aged 4 in “Miss Toni Tanner’s Ten Tapping Tots” and the claim that Garry Lejeune while stil at drama school won the “Laetitia Daintyman medal for violence”. Joy.
box office lyric.co.uk to 27 July