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
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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.