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In the middle of socio-economic misery, a classic farce isn't so much a canny revival as a blindingly obvious one. So it's surprising that it's taken until the fag-end of 2011 for a major London theatre to smash the emergency glass and break out Michael Frayn's 'Noises Off'.
This 1982 meta-romp is a brilliant farce set behind the scenes of a dreadful one – an awful touring sex comedy entitled 'Nothing On'. As the lovingly detailed programme-within-a-programme for the play-within-a-play attests, these shows really did exist. Lindsay Posner's immaculate Old Vic revival makes no attempt to update the cultural reference points – and consequently takes a little while to warm up.
But Posner's first-rate ensemble bring a winsome existential melancholy to this story of six bickering actors, two browbeaten crew members and one megalomaniacal director who are stuck together for 12 weeks touring a show they hate around towns they've never heard of, for motives that never seem quite clear.
They're all absurd – Jonathan Coy's wimpy luvvie Frederick, Jamie Glover's flabbergastingly vague Garry, Amy Nuttall's not-all-there Brooke – but it's difficult not to warm to them, given their ghastly situation.
The situation, though, is the towering achievement of Frayn's technically brilliant triptych. In the bathos-heavy first act, Robert Glenister's withering Lloyd bollocks his apathetic cast during a woeful dress rehearsal; in the virtuoso second, two farces take place at the same time as the cast try to kill each other backstage while simultaneously attempting to press on with a matinee; and in the final scene, the human drama is all in the actors' weary, panicked faces as we watch a straight run through of a catastrophic final-week performance.
I'm not sure 'Noises Off' is a play a cast and director can really impose themselves upon; simply getting it right requires a Herculean feat of precision and empathy. And in this immensely funny revival Posner and Co have emphatically nailed it. The second act, in particular, is about as good as physical comedy gets: a richly detailed tapestry of catastrophe.