LORD, WHAT FOOLS THESE MORTALS BE…
“Doors! Sardines! Getting them on, getting them off. Getting the doors open. And shut. That’s farce. That’s theatre. That’s life!” Ah, how bitterly true: how accurate a metaphor for life is the tale of a hapless theatre company, attempting the most technical of exercises in the company of fallible colleagues. Like John Morton’s 2012 and WIA on television, by showing us the detail of one human enterprise going wrong it illustrates all the errors and temperaments which beset human endeavours. And makes you howl with gleeful recognition; being removed just far enough from reality (it’s a play about a play and full of theatre jokes..) it allows us the cruellest of delights.
I hope Daniel Buckroyd’s Mercury production tours. Not just because it’s a good one but because the last national Noises Off tour (a recast version of Lindsay Posner’s starry Old Vic one) was four years ago, and there must be people who have never seen Michael Frayn’s masterpiece of farce: a reflection which grieves me greatly. At a moment when The Play That Goes Wrong (a humbler but worthy successor) has won an Olivier, it is grand to see it back.
For newcomers, a recap: the first act shows the final rehearsal of an awful farce called Nothing On (full, gloriously pretentious spoof programme provided); the two-tier set revolves (brilliantly here, do get back early from the interval to watch) so that the second act shows it from backstage. The play progresses out of view and the entrances and exits see rising fury and violence among the cast; the third act finds it on the last night of its tour, out front again, going terminally wrong. By which time we know the script, and the characters, all too well. Dotty, playing the comic sardine-loving charlady is getting on and has put her savings in the show; an unwise fling with the divinely dim leading man leads to furious rivalry with the morose, divorcing nervous wreck Freddie; Belinda mumsily tries to smooth things over, the bimbo Brooke keeps losing her contact lenses, and “Selsdon Mowbray” (great old theatre name), is an alcoholic wanderer. Nor does it help that the director, a frustrated Eng.Lit graduate reduced to touring farce, is sleeping with both Brooke and poor put-upon Poppy the stage manager.
I saw a late matinee preview, and they were already spot on, move for move, tumble for tumble (Louis Tamone does terrifying work on the stairs). Having seen it several times I was at first doubtful about the director – Hywel Simons playing it low-key, rather than theatrically shouty and camp as some do – but I warmed to him, and his downplaying makes identification with his frustration easier. Louise Jameson is quite wonderful as Dotty, and David Shelley gives Freddie a fine exasperating pathos. But they’re all good, and the timing bang-on, as it needs to be in this tricky farce. I wondered whether the joy would be as piercing as in the starry West End one. But actually, it was. And the whoops of glee – and surprise – around showed how well (unlike poor Selsdon) it has aged. It does what we need in this harsh election season, as required by the thwarted director’s cry “I didn’t come to the theatre to listen to problems. I want to be taken out of myself. And preferably not put back!”