Words by Melissa Blease Theatre Royal Bath until 1 October
It’s midnight at the Grand Theatre in Weston-super-Mare, and the cast of the ‘hilarious’ farce Nothing On are still struggling through a rehearsal of Act One, despite the fact that the show opens the following night. Cues are missed, props are mislaid, lines are muddled, personal boundaries are totally confused and the director is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Must the show really go on… like this?
Yes it must, and it can, and it does – because, of course, we’re not actually watching Nothing On: we’re watching a new revival of Michael Frayn’s enduringly popular satirical theatre-world play-within-a-play Noises Off, which celebrates its 40th birthday this year and returns to Bath for the first time in over a decade, offering a new generation of farce-fans who are more familiar with, perhaps, Mischief Theatre’s …Goes Wrong series or Hamish McColl, Sean Foley and Eddie Braben’s The Play What I Wrote a chance to acquaint themselves with a delicious debacle widely regarded as representing the crème de la crème of high-octane British buffoonery.
Paying homage to a comedy that itself pays massively respectful homage to Brit-com tradition, this production’s cast list goes crème de la crème too: Felicity Kendal as dotty housekeeper Dotty Otley/Mrs Clackett, Matthew Kelly as bungling, alcoholic Selsdon Mowbray/The Burglar, Tracy-Ann Oberman as glamorous Belinda Blair/Flavia Brent and Jonathan Coy as nosebleed-prone Frederick Fellowes/Philip Brent… the term ‘seasoned professionals’ doesn’t do any of them full justice – but this production, this time around, allows all of them to flaunt their seasoned professionalism in style.
But Noises Off is, all told, very much an ensemble showcase, and there’s not a single weak cog that prevents the super-slick comedy wheel from rolling along. The super-clever backstage perspective of a shambolic matinee performance of Nothing On in Ashton-under-Lyne, one month after the Weston-super-Mare shenanigans, really proves the artistry going on behind the scenes-within–scenes in Noises Off, maxing out on the metatheatre theme, and owes as much to Movement and Fight Director Ruth Cooper-Brown’s almost balletic choreography as it does to Lindsay Posner’s precise direction and the cast’s impeccable timing.
Noises Off won’t answer any questions around, for example, exactly why we Brits apparently find trousers that fall down around men’s ankles so hysterically funny, or why every domestic farce has to have at least one woman running around the stage in stockings and high heels. But if you’re after a slick, lighthearted, feel-good evening at the theatre watching a really bad time going on behind the scenes, it makes all the right noises.