NOISES OFF
The Old Vic, London SE1
Opened 13 December, 2011
****

You quite often read in reviews that such-and-such an actor starts at too high a pitch, leaving their performance nowhere to go. In Michael Frayn’s classic 1982 farce, events in general begin at an implausibly high pitch, but then proceed to fire up their jetpack. Whereas most farces begin with a more or less reasonable situation and escalate matters to a peak of absurdity, Noises Off is already at full farce intensity more or less from the word go.
    
For it is, of course, a farce about farce, beginning at the technical rehearsal of a dreadful theatrical romp, introducing the various quirks of cast, director and stage managers even as we watch a jerky, unsatisfactory hobble through the first act of the fictional Nothing On. This Act One is followed by, er, Act One, a month or so later on tour, with assorted intrigues leading to bad blood amongst the company; finally, Act One, at the end of the tour, a complete shambles in which all concerned simply want to get the whole thing over with. In each case, the same basic script is performed, but with more and more cock-ups.
    
The second act (that is, the second Act One) is the real delight, since the set is reversed and what we principally see is the backstage pandemonium, with muffled lines and an occasional glimpse through the set window of the proceedings “onstage”. Designer Peter McKintosh cheats the sightlines in this act: in reality, an audience in the supposed Theatre Royal, Ashton-under-Lyne, would also see utter chaos back through the same window. But director Lindsay Posner choreographs his cast so beautifully that one doesn’t care. Jamie Glover as the furiously jealous lover, Jonathan Coy as the bumbler Glover thinks is his rival for the ageing luvvie portrayed by Celia Imrie, Robert Glenister as the lethally sarcastic two-timing director and Karl Johnson as the old soak are the most frantic parties, with Janie Dee as the self-appointed linchpin of the company. Even the SMs get some confusion of their own, with conflicting front-of-house announcements.
    
Getting a staging so comprehensively, dynamically wrong is an amazingly intricate business, and Posner and his company pull it off with verve and aplomb. The chap sitting behind me on press night was the most deafening audience laugher I have ever encountered, but you really can’t begrudge someone a good old guffaw at stuff like this.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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