This may be the worst year for the U.K. economy since Eve short-sold the apple to Adam. It also has been just about the best year for stage comedy in London.
Michael Frayn’s 1982 farce “Noises Off,” now playing in a new production at the Old Vic, is the latest in a line of must-see comedies. This backstage romp comes hot on the heels of “One Man, Two Guvnors” at the Adelphi, and “The Comedy of Errors” at the National.
Act 1 takes place in a provincial theater during the dress rehearsal of a dreadful farce called “Nothing On.” It’s the sort of piece in which doors are banged, coincidences abound and a pretty young girl runs around in her underwear. It’s late. The actors get everything wrong. Tempers fray. “Why do I take the things off into the study?” complains Frederick (Jonathan Coy) about his numerous props.
“Why does anyone do anything?” spits the director (Robert Glenister) sarcastically. “The wellsprings of human action are deep and cloudy.”
Act 2 takes place a few weeks later during the tour of the play, and we watch the whole farce from behind the scenes. By now, relationships in the company have deteriorated even further. Between their quick exits from the set, a bitter pair of former lovers tries to brain each other. Colleagues sabotage props. A love triangle is at breaking point. “Nothing On” spirals into backstage mayhem.
In Act 3, we see the play at the end of its run. The props start falling apart. Several actors have given up the ghost, and others start improvising furiously. Only the ingenue (Amy Nuttall) carries on blindly with her scripted gestures as if nothing were wrong, leading to some eye-watering non-sequiturs.
Lindsay Posner’s slick production could show the particles in the Hadron Collider a thing or two about speed. Each joke is timed with Swiss precision, and the set-piece climaxes burst with atomic explosiveness.
The cast is superb. Celia Imrie milks every gag possible as Dotty, a grand thesp playing a common cleaning lady. Jamie Glover (as dim romantic lead Garry Lejeune) wins applause for his superb stunt falling headlong down a flight of stairs.
Paul Ready, as the flailing stage manager Tim, does a beautiful line in mounting panic, and his pratfalls are as ticklish as anything on stage.
Designer Peter McKintosh creates a beautiful pastiche of a cheap touring production set, complete with wobbly walls and garish colors.
If we are indeed sliding down the drain into recession and despair, at least we can go laughing. The only question is: Will Londoners’ ribs stand the strain? Rating: ****.
“Noises Off” is at the Old Vic, which has Bank of America Merrill Lynch as its season sponsor. The show runs through March. Information: http://www.oldvictheatre.com or +44-844-871-7628.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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