Giddy, precarious precision is just right

Noises Off, National Theatre, London
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Michael Frayn's Noises Off has strong claims to be voted the funniest farce ever written. And the brainiest. It is, after all, a farce about a farce - a meta-farce, no less. It shows us the same company of actors in a ropey seaside-rep farce called Nothing On from three different, mountingly hilarious perspectives.

Michael Frayn's Noises Off has strong claims to be voted the funniest farce ever written. And the brainiest. It is, after all, a farce about a farce - a meta-farce, no less. It shows us the same company of actors in a ropey seaside-rep farce called Nothing On from three different, mountingly hilarious perspectives.

There's the Act One dress rehearsal, then a reverse-angle view from behind the set, then a front-of-house take on a disastrous performance. The brilliant trick is that the frenzied feuds, foibles, and cross-purposes of the actors' real lives upstage the comparatively anaemic cock-ups in Nothing On.

So Frayn's play is triply theatrical, a point made by default in the amusingly dreadful movie version by Peter Bogdanovich which was a contradiction in terms roughly on the level of trying to mount a synchronised swimming display at the local ice rink. but a lot depends on where you see it. Jeremy Sams's splendidly cast revival in the Lyttelton is undoubtedly a joy and a riot, but through the first half of the evening, I felt that its location, in the temple of Art that is the National Theatre, had a slightly deadening effect on the proceedings.

For obvious reasons, Noises Off works best in the tatty gilt and plush raffishness of the commercial sector - that is to say, in a domain where it would not be inconceivable that you could go to see a play like Nothing On. I'm not saying that it is like watching a Ray Cooney side-splitter in the Greek amphitheatre at Epidaurus, but it is heading that way. And in the early stages, the slightly antiseptic ambience of the Lyttelton seemed to me to expose a faint lack of balls in Frayn's play, which is not, like some of the best farces, written from the genitals as well as from the author's intellectual genius.

Once it gets going, though, it wouldn't matter if you performed it in Westminster Abbey during a state funeral: the audience is just helpless. Helping them to be helpless here are some spot-on performances, particularly from Aden Gillett as Garry Lejeune, the smoothie heart-throb thesp. He is complete bliss, flashing desperate attempts at a reassuring smile towards the audience as banisters self-destruct at his touch or vital doors fail to have knobs or domestic telephone wires stretched across the set get between his legs and threaten to rob him of his manhood. The skilled company, which includes those delicious actresses Patricia Hodge and Susie Blake, generate just the right feeling of giddily precarious precision, so that you feel it is not just Nothing On that is inches away from catastrophe, but Noises Off too.

Should such a robustly commercial piece be at the National Theatre, especially as it has just presented Alan Ayckbourn's not dissimilar House and Garden? The answer is no. In the morning, I will be able to work myself into a state of indignation. Right now, I am too elated to care.

Comments