Perhaps one of the most celebrated backstage comedies of all time, Noises Off returns to the West End for the first time in about ten years at the Old Vic under the expert guidance of Lindsay Posner. The concept is simple; the action is anything but. A farce evolves around a theatre company trying to stage a farce and chaos, unsurprisingly, ensues in utterly ridiculous fashion. This is one of the best nights I have had at the theatre all year and I sincerely urge everyone to book a ticket now and go whenever you can.
From even before the play begins the Old Vic has put everything into it. The music that plays develops into a dynamic all its own and works very well indeed. In addition to this, I particularly liked the inclusion of a short programme for Nothing On in the actual programme; it really gave the play within the play a feeling of authenticity that allowed us to believe from the off that these characters were real and struggling. This may not be a necessary touch for farce but it lifted it to a higher level.
The first act is hilarious but it’s the second act where it really steps it up a gear and accelerates to raucous laughter with the onstage and backstage confusion mounting and multiplying. There’s not enough duct tape in the world to hold this group together and watching it all fall apart with their simultaneous best efforts to hold the show together and sabotage each other gave an experience that is doubtlessly one of the funniest I have ever had in the theatre. It’s what A Flea in Her Ear was trying to be.
It must be unnervingly difficult to make sure that everything is in the right place, that the timing of all the events is as perfect as it was when they were on stage. The rehearsals must have been exhausting but I can thankfully report that it was worth it. The comic timing of not only the lines but also all the physical comedy was perfect. The second scene in particular requires the actors to all keep a great deal in their heads at once to make sure that everything meets up in the way it needs to and everyone succeeded brilliantly. It’s a textbook example of great farcical theatre.
To single out any one of the actors for praise over and above the others is impossible. They are all, every one, outstanding. They have mastered the physicality required of such an energetic farce and often their physicality alone is enough to make you laugh out loud. The confidence that the actors have in their lines is remarkable for a script so easily confused and muddled. Each character has a distinctive comedy and a recognizable humanity, a keen balance to be struck in such a demanding play. The quality on stage here is some of the best I have not only seen all year but ever.
It’s not hard to see what has made the script so lauded over the years. Apart from the meticulous attention to detail that is necessary for a successful farce (let alone a farce within a farce) it offers so much more than that. Every line is comedy. Every line is either a joke or a setup for a joke, either physical or otherwise. The intelligence in the structuring of the acts is noticeable as we see onstage then backstage then onstage again as the run progresses. It’s a truly magnificent piece of writing.
The direction from Lindsay Posner is skilled. Holding everything together, making sure that all the little things that need to be there are where they should be and that the characters are as relatable and haphazard as they are is no easy task and he succeeds in making it all it could be.
The set is strikingly magnificent for one that is moved around so easily. The speed with which the set is turned around in both the interval and second short break is impressive and even when you’ve seen the backside you believe there’s a whole house behind the numerous doors that litter the stage and are slammed throughout to perfection. As the action slowly accelerates and any semblance of unity in the play within a play collapses, the set holds up to the demands of people falling down stairs, breaking doors and everything else. It’s a brilliant set, functional as well as able to enhance the overall show.
Often in these reviews I mention balance being the key to great performance. When everything is in a harmonious balance with everything else there is nothing out of place, there is no prop that doesn’t have a reason for being there, no line that is skipped over, no character ignored and the result is a fantastic show. This is one such show. Everything has been orchestrated and engineered to bring the best out of everything else and it tells.
A five star piece of theatre should be a piece that you want to go and see again and again. If I could, I’d never leave. Noises Off is a classic piece of English theatre and should never be missed. A rendition this good shouldn’t stop, though it will have to at some point. Make sure you don’t miss it.
Written by Michael Frayn; Directed by Linsay Posner; At the Old Vic; Starring Jonathan Coy, Janie Dee, Robert Glenister, Jamie Glover, Celia Imrie, Karl Johnson, Aisling Loftus, Amy Nuttall, Paul Ready; Runs from 3 December 11 - 10 March 12.
John Ord (10/12/2011)