BWW Review: NOISES OFF, Lyric Hammersmith
Do not anger the theatre gods, for their vengeance is swift and mighty. On press night of Michael Frayn's peerless portrait of backstage disasters, the Lyric suffered its own "technical difficulties", adding a distinctly meta frisson to this already gloriously layered comedy.
This was otherwise a triumphant homecoming for Noises Off, which opened here back in 1982. While some references might not be as widely understandable, the spirit of the piece is still just as strong, and the unfolding chaos just as sublime.
The play follows a company embarking on a regional tour with dismal bedroom farce Nothing On. All the theatrical figures are present and correct - from Dotty, who's made a career playing the same character type, and has sunk money into the show, through to egotistical director Lloyd, and beleaguered crew Tim and Poppy. Act I is a pained rehearsal in the early hours of the morning before opening, Act II flips the set so we can see backstage drama disrupting the play, and Act III is the tour's final night, the show pratfalling into total disaster.
Still miraculous is the absolute precision of Frayn's construction, served well here by Jeremy Herrin's slick revival (Herrin also helmed a 2016 Broadway production). In particular, the silent second-act mime is extraordinary to witness - as dexterous, meticulous and absorbing as a ballet (in the fact the 'lost contact lens search' plays like a dance). There isn't a wasted line, or movement, with each carefully set-up idea of the first act paid off later on.
Occasionally Herrin overeggs a punchline, not necessary when the groundwork has been so well placed; like the best comedy, you only see the full workings of Frayn's in retrospect. In the moment, all you can do is howl, gasp and weep with laughter. Noises Off simultaneously satirises the creaky contrivances, slapstick, door-slamming and prurience of the old-fashioned farce - while also deploying all those tropes in magnificent fashion. Sometimes, all you need is a cactus left carelessly on a chair.
Meera Syal is perhaps the standout of a note-perfect company. She wittily switches between Dottie Otley, the RP-accented wannabe diva, and her alter ego: a chirpy cockney housekeeper character. Mid-rehearsal, while sparring with her director over props, she plasters on the Mrs Clackett smile and wide-legged walk (as if shoplifting a melon between her knees) - but also drops them for a very Dotty grand exit.
The passive-aggressive luvvie speak is deliciously employed ("We've changed that have we, love?" enquires Dotty through gritted teeth as Lloyd corrects her again), ramped up into real primal aggression as Syal's Dotty gets into a vicious spat with her lover Garry. The latter is a dynamite turn from Daniel Rigby, who switches from inarticulate dolt to wild-eyed rage monster whenever he (mistakenly) spies Dottie seducing someone else.
Jonathan Cullen is also wonderful as tremulous Freddie, who gets nosebleeds at any hint of violence, and then faints at the side of blood. Particularly brilliant is the moment when Lloyd takes pity (after finding out Freddie's wife has left him) and, rather than just insisting he carry off a prop in order to keep the mechanics of this terrible farce working, gives him a complex 'motivation' for doing so by tapping into his sense of vulnerability. Cullen hugs the box of groceries like a drowning man clinging to a life raft.
Debra Gillett captures that one busybody in the company who knows all the gossip, and Simon Rouse brings a certain nobility to Selsdon, who extravagantly proclaims like Olivier - when he's not hunting for whiskey. Amy Morgan effectively demonstrates the rigidity of Brooke - whose refusal to acknowledge the world around her, or to improvise, is a key facet of the later action - through a series of catalogue model poses: hand on hip, expectant smile.
Poor exhausted Tim, stuck with all manner of company tasks, as well as putting up (and continually fixing) the set, is played with blinking near-collapse by Enyi Okoronkwo; Lois Chimimba's jilted Poppy powers through her tasks while sobbing, until she reaches a furious breaking point; while arrogant, sarcastic Lloyd - eager to ditch this crew so he can go direct Richard III - is given a very effective nihilistic spin by Lloyd Owen.
Max Jones's design gives us a flawless re-creation of the chintzy bedroom farce set, plus a comprehensive backstage. Little details brilliantly support the comedy; the duelling Front of House calls are made all the funnier for the screeching creak every time the mic is moved.
Costumes, too, are spot on (Freddie's character in red trousers and cravat, Belinda's in hideous florals), and the all-important sardines are visibly, revoltingly greasy. Credit, too, for Lorna Munden's theme tune to the play-within-a-play - benign initially, screamingly funny when repeated on a loop to cover backstage calamity - and for the vital movement and fight, respectively, work of Joyce Henderson, Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown.
Not just industry send-up, Frayn's work also plays with our simultaneous enjoyment and terror of losing control - the fact that we're just one misunderstanding or misplaced plate of sardines away from revealing our inner craziness or tumbling into the abyss. That lurking darkness gives the comedy heft, but above all, this is a night of big, joyful, overwhelming laughter.
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks