No review can do full justice to the blissful, intricate hilarity of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, in which an old-school sex-farce is seen in rehearsal, backstage and in performance, and in increasing states of disarray.
Jeremy Herrin’s revival has been partially recast and sharpened up since it opened at the Lyric Hammersmith earlier this year, but still revolves around a clownishly batty Meera Syal as the ageing star-cum-producer, and Lloyd Owen as the arrogant, priapic director. God knows we all need some laughs these days, and this show delivers them by the bucketload.
The theatrical world Frayn sends up was old-fashioned when his play premiered in 1982, also at the Lyric, yet Noises Off is regularly revived. It mocks actors’ foibles and their weakness for on-tour flings, but also salutes their ability to go out and perform when their lives, and the set, are collapsing.
Frayn takes the conventions of farce and ramps them up into a whirlwind of slamming doors, dropping trousers, and misplaced props, including a plate of kippers that multiplies like the head of a Hydra. Maybe we all recognise the sheer desperation of the actor (in this case the sublimely flustered Daniel Rigby) who realises, at the top of a staircase, that his shoelaces have been tied together.
Although Syal and Owen are the centres of gravity, this is very much an ensemble piece. The characters’ emotional collisions and the elaborate physical business mesh like the workings of a Swiss watch. Particularly in the middle act where passions boil over mostly in mime, because everyone is observing the convention of backstage silence.
You could watch this play a thousand times and never spot every visual gag or clever twist, but familiarity does mean you notice its technical workings more. Noises Off is always funny, but it’s always funniest the first time. I envy those discovering it in Herrin’s production — you’re in for a rib-splitting treat.
Booking to January 4