‘Noises Off’ review
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A bizarrely meta press night malfunction can’t take the fun out of Michael Frayn’s deathless backstage farce
‘Noises Off’ transfers to the West End in Autumn 2019. This review is from its premiere at Lyric Hammersmith in July 2019.
Something brilliant happened during press night of ‘Noises Off’, Michael Frayn’s famous farce about a farce: the lights died, and an apologetic stage manager had to confess to the audience that there had been a technical hitch. For that to happen in any show is unlucky; to happen during a comedy about a theatre show collapsing around its actors is exquisitely ironic.
Indeed, half the audience thought it was part of the play, which tells you something about the furious, frenetic, metatheatrical nature of Frayn’s play, first produced at this very theatre almost 40 years ago and revived now by heavyweight director Jeremy Herrin.
It takes place over three acts. The first is the torturous technical rehearsal of a touring production of a fictional bedroom farce. The second spins the set around and shows the backstage chaos halfway through the run. The third puts us in the audience during the production’s final weeks, when the set is falling apart and the cast want to kill each other.
Good farce isn’t just about slamming doors and mistaken identity, it’s about human frailty as well. ‘Noises Off’, though, is a great farce: it manages to be about both those things and simultaneously works as an affectionate love letter to regional theatre. It’s also an incredibly intricate piece of writing – particularly the second act, when the mayhem ‘backstage’ has to match up perfectly with the mayhem going on unseen ‘on stage’. In a programme note, Frayn himself writes that any director willing to take it on must be ‘slightly insane’.
Herrin does it justice, which is pretty much the highest praise possible. He’s helped by a crack cast – Meera Syal, Simon Rouse, Jonathan Cullen and Lois Chimimba are all great, but Daniel Rigby is best as leading man Garry Lejeune, who becomes catastrophically convinced that the sexual shenanigans in the fictional farce have made their way into reality.
Apart from ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ (a clear descendant of ‘Noises Off’), farce hasn’t been fashionable for a long time in London. This rollicking revival – technical hitches included – reminds you that, when done well, there are few things funnier.