There has never been a more brilliantly conceived machine for generating helpless audience laughter than Michael Frayn's 1982 classic Noises Off, which revived now by Lindsay Posner as a deliriously funny and beautifully cast Christmas treat at the Old Vic.
Talk about upping the ante. Farce shows us that our frantic attempts to impose order on the world are always just one mishap away from spiralling chaos. Frayn had the inspired idea of compounding this sense of potty precariousness by creating a farce about the desperate difficulties of putting on a farce. In the first act, we watch the fraught dress rehearsal of a creaky, touring romp called Nothing On, replete with falling trousers, fake sheikhs, a scantily clad bimbo and countless plates of sardines. The perspective is then reversed as we view the proceedings from backstage at a matinee a month later. Mayhem erupts in near-silent slapstick as the feuding actors simultaneously struggle to keep the show on the road and sabotage each other. Finally, in what is (to my mind) a slight falling-off, we witness (from the front again), the surreal pandemonium of the last night.
You feel throughout that this revival is a real labour of love. It brings out the zestful warmth in the piece, which is at once a demolition of dire farce and joyous celebration of it, and broadly affectionate in its satire of the luvvies who are, outrageously, just as much stereotypes as the characters they play. On both the choreographic and the characterisation fronts, this production delivers. With his shoe-laces tied together by a suspicious lover, Jamie Glover's excellent juve lead has to dash about the performance of Nothing On like someone who's gone crackers during a sack race in the dazzlingly well-drilled disaster of the middle act.
The delicious Celia Imrie brings her wonderful “Acorn Antiques” credentials to the faintly grand thesp who plays (shades of Mrs Overall) the comic charlady, Dottie Otley, while Janie Dee is sublime as Belinda Blair, the alarmingly competent blonde actress who handles whatever the inset drama throws at her (including too many burglars and the stage manager suddenly playing her husband) with a bright, distracting show of aplomb and in strained, soothing tones. But then everyone is terrific, from Karl Johnson's drunken old actor laddie to Robert Glenister's terminally cynical director to Jonathan Coy who is adorable as a nervous dimwit who doesn't seem to understand the first thing about farce conventions. Unlike Michael Frayn who here offers two uproarious plays for the price of one.