It's a complete farce

Michael Frayn's new play has just opened in the West End. One paper hated it; others were entranced. What's it like to be acting in a piece that provokes such strong reactions? Robert Butler spent three nights finding out

Michael Frayn has said that there are many ways you can classify plays - as comedies, tragedies, tragi-comedies, verse, prose, and so on. But whichever way you do, they all fall into two categories: hits and flops.

With Noises Off, he had a big hit. With Look Look, he had a big flop. Will his latest comedy, Alarms and Excursions, follow Noises Off and run in the West End for four years? Or will it follow Look Look and close after four weeks? When I saw Frayn in Malvern, where Alarms and Excursions was on tour two weeks before its West End opening, he appeared relaxed. "You get an idea from the first audience," he says, "of how a thing is going to go."

At the first preview at Guildford, bits of scenery came on in the wrong order and an actor was left on-stage speechless. But it was "enormously encouraging": the audience were with it. "I remember with Look Look, everyone in the rehearsals thought it was wonderful. Michael Codron came to the last run-through in the rehearsal room and I said 'What notes have you got?' - he always has lots of scratchy notes - and he said 'None, marvellous, absolutely wonderful'. And we got in front of the first preview audience at the Aldwych and we all knew it was dead. There was no way we were ever going to breathe life into this corpse."

Alarms and Excursions comprises eight sketches: Frayn wrote them over 18 months while waiting for the Cottesloe to come free for his last play, Copenhagen. He wrote lots of short plays, "a dozen, or 15", as he puts it, absent-mindedly, and gave them to director Michael Blakemore and producer Michael Codron. They picked ones that could be done by the same cast: Felicity Kendal, Nicky Henson, Josie Lawrence and Robert Bathurst. "Normally during rehearsals, when you do a comedy," says Nicky Henson, who was in Noises Off, "the stage management laugh, and when they come in, they laugh, and then they stop laughing, because they've heard the gag. With this, we didn't get a single laugh. Because this isn't funny until you're completely on top of it. Then it's funny."

After our interview, Frayn is giving the cast more rewrites. "It's very difficult, until you see the thing actually performed before an audience, particularly comedy, to know how it's going to work. We've had to do a bit of fiddling with the setting up of all of them. Trying to make everything clearer. Laughs are a good indicator as to whether people understand."

What's also difficult is that the audiences keep changing. After Guildford, where Alarms and Excursions sold out, the show went to Newcastle and ran into the north-south divide. "They didn't come," says Henson. Up there, Felicity Kendal in a Michael Frayn doesn't shift tickets. When the tour moved to Bath, it sold out. The cast were very optimistic. I heard the show was going to be a hit.

With Copenhagen, which opened at the National in May, Frayn had already written the best play this year. You could see that only a man with the technical skills to write a first-rate farce could handle the complexities of Copenhagen. But there's a deeper connection between the man who writes farce and the men who are nuclear physicists. The play examines the mystery of why the German nuclear physicist Werner Heisenberg went to visit his Danish counterpart Niels Bohr in 1941. "Really what Copenhagen is about is what Look Look is about. It's about audiences. It's why [in Copenhagen] we have the audience right around the stage. To know what you're thinking yourself, you need a reaction from other people. That's why, in the end, Heisenberg goes to Copenhagen. To have an audience."

By the end of six weeks' rehearsal at the National, the actors were saying that what they needed now was an audience. They needed to find out what it was they were doing. "That's just what the play's about!" said Frayn. "Heisenberg was seeking an informed, sympathetic audience, for whom he had done plays before, as it were. To try out this play."

Two weeks later, Frayn is trying out his play. He stands in the foyer of the Gielgud, Shaftesbury Avenue. It's packed. There's Lionel Blair, there's Christopher Biggins, and there's Dot Cotton from EastEnders. There, collecting his ticket, near a portrait of Sir John Gielgud, is The Late Show's Tom Paulin, one of the 50 critics, editors and diarists to get invitations for two for the first night. Is this the informed, sympathetic audience for whom Frayn has done plays before?

Nicky Henson remembers that the previews of Noises Off were "the most extraordinary nights, because people didn't know what it was about". The cast bored holes in the flats at the back of the stage to watch the audience. The curtain would go up. "There would be this terrible sense of disappointment when they saw the set and when they saw this terrible acting." When Paul Eddington delivered his first line from the back of the stalls and the audience realised it was a play within a play, "there was a huge laugh of relief".

Tomorrow, reviews will be out, and people will arrive expecting to see something they have been told in advance is good or bad. "We're nervous," says Henson, "and the audience are nervous". Frayn had dissected the social dynamic of first nights when we were in Malvern. "One part of the audience is reviewers who have come, not to be entertained, but to assess the play. And even if they're enjoying it, they don't respond in the same way. The other part of the audience tends to be friends and supporters of the cast and management, desperately anxious to demonstrate their goodwill. Someone comes on stage and says "The carriage awaits ..." and they go, "Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!" It must be very alienating for the critics, this grotesquely exaggerated response."

Frayn tells the story of the first night of Windy City, when two people in the stalls were really enjoying the show and laughing and laughing uproariously. When the final curtain came down and the applause died away, one turned to the other and said: "Well, that's pounds 10,000 down the drain." A first night is more like a trade fair than an evening at the theatre. Half the people in the stalls know each other and some of them have known each other for 40 years. It is the only night, after all, when people will notice whether or not you're at the theatre. For one night only, the audience provides an audience for itself. Some watch the performers. Some watch the famous faces. Some even watch the critics.

For the first half tonight, the audience's reaction is subdued, and the boulevard performances are more constrained. After the interval, there's a change. A large section of the audience is still chatting - okay, networking - when the play starts again. A mass of bodies melt into their seats. Suddenly the second half takes off. Everything gets a laugh. Perhaps all the rewrites in the world can't help a comedy as much as a gin and tonic.

The first-night audience don't laugh as loudly as the Malvern one. But at the end, they cheer. It's hard to fathom. When Harold Hobson retired after 29 years of first nights as drama critic of the Sunday Times, Nicky Henson went to the farewell party. He told Hobson: "Now you'll be able to go and see real theatre on good nights with a proper audience."

Two nights later, looking down from the gold banisters of the Dress Circle Bar, the crowd is noticeably different. They treat the foyer more like a hallway than a reception room, moving through it to their seats. The voices are quieter, the heels are flatter, and very few of the men have blow-dried hair. People hold carrier bags, rucksacks and look as if they have stepped off buses. Two young men are chatting in German. Everyone is seated well before the lights go down.

Yesterday the reviews had come out. Felicity Kendal doesn't read reviews. Nicky Henson doesn't read reviews when he's working in the subsidised theatre. "They don't affect my contract." He does read them when he's in the West End. "I want to know what my chances are of paying the mortage in the next few months." The first review he read was in the Evening Standard. The headline said it was "alarmingly unfunny". The reviewer had loathed it. "I was gobsmacked," Henson says. "I rang my agent and said: 'Don't turn anything down. It looks like we're dead in the water.' " His agent told him to read the other reviews. The Independent, Times, Telegraph, Mail and Express were fine. Nevertheless, the audience for the first 20 minutes on the second night were "as cold as ice". If there was one review that the audience would have read on the way to the theatre that evening, it was the Standard's.

Tonight, the third night of the run, the house isn't as full, but the laughter is more frequent, the rustle of sweet paper has returned and the performances are the best that I'd seen. Unlike the first night, the telephone also explodes on cue.

Outside the theatre, I'd seen an actor, Jonathan Rigby, who is one of the two understudies. What a job. Henson told me his own part was "the most difficult thing I've done": quickfire dialogue, with players absolutely dependent on each other, and so many sound cues that the sound engineer is considered the fifth member of the cast. "In the second play, you have to take cues from another actor through an imaginary wall. You've got to pick stuff up, but you mustn't look in that direction." The understudy may have to go on and do Henson's part (the most difficult thing he's ever done) or Bathurst's part (which doesn't look any easier). They are two of the most technically demanding roles in the West End, requiring an absolute lightness of touch. Every day, Rigby gets up not knowing whether or not he will have to perform either one of them on stage for the first time. "The chances are, I will," he says, with stoic humour. He just doesn't know if or when.

For a mixture of stress and boredom, it seemed hard to beat. As he disappeared through the stage door of the Gielgud, I wasn't sure if understudies would be happier if the play ran for four weeks or four years.

'Alarms and Excursions': Gielgud, W1 (0171 494 5040), to 19 December.

Tom Lubbock: The Critics, page 10.

Arts and Entertainment
The crowd enjoy Latitude Festival 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
'I do think a woman's place is eventually in the home, but I see no harm in her having some fun before she gets there.'

Is this the end of the Dowager Countess?tv
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Martin of Coldplay performs live for fans at Enmore Theatre on June 19, 2014 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn