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Noises Off premiered at this theatre in 1982 and instantly became a classic of British comedy, it swept the West End and Broadway, had a stunning revival at the National Theatre and has been performed all over the world to great success ever since. It now returns home in a new production by Jeremy Herrin.
It's constructed like an exquisite piece of clockwork. The idea came to Frayn watching backstage as two great actors raced desperately from door to door playing five characters between them in a comedy. Farce is strictly ordered disorder but what would happen, he thought, if that order was overrun by some real disorder in the actors own offstage emotional lives. By setting the action among a grim, insecure, touring company on an interminable provincial tour he hit comedy gold.
In Act One we observe the weary late night 'tech' of act one of some tired farce where we meet a motley bunch of inept and generally neurotic actors who, like teens on a school tour, are falling in and out of love. The great theatrical coup of Act Two is to turn the same set around so we now see them all backstage making their entrances off-stage, as it were. The tour is now well along but the private squabbles have become so toxic that two of the cast have resorted to taking pot shots at each other each time they come off. By Act Three the tour is even further along, the squabbling has degenerated more and the text of the play is now an even more distant memory, and the play rendered virtually incomprehensible. It's a stunning premise, an homage to theatre, and when it works the audience rides of a wave of comic hysteria which has left people helpless with laughter.
It is a devil to get right however and rather like a delicate soufflé there is no middle ground with it. Sadly, despite the sterling efforts of all involved here, this soufflé failed to rise.
You can't get it half right, it's binary, the audience is either rolling in the aisles or else it has fallen flat because when the audience isn't laughing, they're thinking, and that's fatal. The energy then drains away like an unplugged sink.
Having been a fan of this play for years I always considered it would never date, but being seated next to young and, sadly, mostly silent, group reminded one of how the play within the play here is now such unfamiliar territory. Such dreary sex farces, which were a staple of touring companies up till the '80s, are no more so the central premise has less currency. The piece is also wonderfully mired in values of the 80s, something probably unnoticed at the time.
Lloyd, the God-like director, is essentially a Basil Fawlty type, a tyrant, but Lloyd Owen, while having great stage presence, plays him with an intelligent sarcasm that makes you wonder why he'd even bother being there. Likewise, Meera Syal, whose stock in trade is a caustic self-awareness, is out of her sphere too as Dotty/Mrs Clackett.
While the first act is underpowered the second just boils over far too soon. The build-up of angst which explodes into some sublime physical comedy, of the silent movie variety, still needs to be grounded in some reality if the audience is to be carried with it. Here, people were reaching for their toffees like an audience of OAPs at a wet Wednesday matinee in Weston-super-Mare.
The stand out though is Debra Gillett [seated on right, above] as the peacemaker, who pitches it perfectly, cleverly resisting all self-awareness. Jonathan Cullen too manages some poignant moments as Frederick, the actor who needs help with his motivation and everything else.