After the sensation of The Play that Goes Wrong, one (i.e. me) would be forgiven for thinking that this farcical, meta 1982 play was an imitation. How mistaken that one would be. Michael Frayn’s very silly, very British play follows a theatre company from the dress rehearsal to closing night, while their play-within-a-play Nothing On is set upon by disputes, drama, and disaster.
It says something for a play of over 30 years to be mistaken for a new play. As short as that time may seem given the long history of theatre, many plays are unable to perform to modern audiences without seeming out-dated or (whisper it) problematic. In the case of Noises Off, however, it feels fresh and, in this new production, as sharp as a whip. Jokes fly by in the blink of an eye, and there are so many that one can’t possibly enjoy them all in one viewing. In a play where the joke is that everything snowballs into chaos, everything needs to be tight so that no real mistakes ruin any punch-lines. Jeremy Herryn’s direction is seamless, and demonstrates his ability to create a busy but crucially uncluttered stage image.
The show is also packed with brilliant comedic performances, all playing caricatures of eccentric theatre-types. Daniel Rigby is hilarious as Freddy, an inarticulate but endearing buffoon. Myra Syal, Simon Rous and Lois Chimimba are all fantastic as well, but the stand-out is Lloyd Owen as a sarcastic, sardonic director with a god complex. He initially prowls the theatre stalls with an air of someone almost, but not quite, past caring, before becoming embroiled in the on-stage mayhem himself.
The structure of the play is surprisingly sophisticated for a farce and is all the better for it. The first act is the night before the press performance and establishes what happens in this play-within-a-play (which is also, I might add, a farce). In the second act, which is performed almost entirely in mime, we see everything going to hell in a handcart backstage. It’s clever, daft, and proves that slapstick and mime are as funny now as they ever were. By the third act however it did seem to run out of steam and it became difficult to follow. Nevertheless, Noises Off is a solidly entertaining show with fully-realised characters and superb physical comedy. Four stars.