Forty-one years on, Michael Frayn’s peerless farce-within-a-farce is still guaranteed to leave an audience breathless with laughter, even though it has long outlived the sex comedies it set out to spoof in 1982. It’s meticulously plotted, remorselessly funny, and always feels fresh: last night, the jokes about tax dodging landed particularly soundly.
Lindsay Posner’s revival features precisely the kind of starry allsorts – Felicity Kendal, Matthew Kelly, Alexander Hanson – who might have taken a trouser-dropping farce out on the road in the Sixties or Seventies. It’s slow and curiously muted in the first act, when the troupe of vain and needy thesps stumble through rehearsals of a dire farce called Nothing On.
But it gathers impetus in the sublime second act, when we witness jealousies and weaknesses wreaking silent backstage havoc on the production; and the third, when we watch the show fall apart out front. The whole thing is infused with a wry affection for actors and stage comedy and theatre lore, including the unwise romances that happen on tour. It’s also quietly profound, exploring the existential desperation that comes when you realise no one’s in control.
But mostly Noises Off is just blissfully, brilliantly funny. Kendal is well cast and robustly hilarious, if slightly OTT, in her jittery mannerisms and disapproving pouts, as ageing sitcom darling Dotty Otley, who’s staked her savings on the play. Joseph Millson bears the heroic brunt of the physical comedy, lurching up and down stairs and through slamming doors (that old farce standard) with his shoelaces tied together, as her toyboy lover and costar Gary Lejeune.
Alexander Hanson is underpowered as arrogant director Lloyd Dallas, who’s involved with both the show’s underwear-clad ingenue Brooke (Sasha Frost) and the young, female stage manager, Poppy (Pepter Lunkuse). Though the show uses the tropes of sexist bedroom farce, I think Frayn is pretty clear on the way Dallas exploits his power.
Tracy-Ann Oberman is a delight as Belinda, the cast’s regally wiggling repository of gossip and sympathy (Katherine Kingsley takes over the part from Feb 13), while the non-sequiturs of Matthew Kelly’s selectively deaf, drunken old ham Selsdon Mowbray add a surreal dimension.
I was taken to the original run of Noises Off as a teenager by my parents, found it intoxicatingly hilarious, and have seen every major London revival since. Each time I’m struck by individual strands. Brook’s determination to deliver her lines in order, whatever happens – unless she loses a contact lens, in which case everything stops – is always wonderful.
In this show, I enjoyed the desperate need of hapless Frederick (Jonathan Coy) to find his motivation. And the way the complicating props in Nothing On (a telephone, an airline holdall, several plates of sardines) are mirrored (by a fire axe, a whisky bottle, and several bouquets of flowers) in the backstage dumbshow of the second act.
But mostly I was awed yet again by the way a new ensemble mastered a fiendishly complex piece of stagecraft, stuffed with verbal and visual gags that develop and pay out countless times. Minor niggles aside, Frayn’s comic classic seems to be bulletproof. Hats, and trousers, off to him.
Phoenix Theatre, to March 11; atgtickets.com