Noises Off, the Michael Frayn farce, became even more surreal on its first press night at the Lyric theatre, Hammersmith last week, when the production had a problem with the stage lighting. To the uninitiated it was hard to tell whether that was part of the plot or not! It wasn’t, but apparently the next bit in which everything unravelled, was.
Noises Off is a play within a play, in which a company of actors is rehearsing a farce. During the first act, played towards the audience in the theatre in the normal way, the director (Lloyd Own) keeps stopping the rehearsal and gets increasingly irritated as the doors stick (or won’t close when they should) and ‘Dotty’, (Meera Syal) keeps forgetting what she should do with the props.
The set is key. It’s the inside of a country house, with a sofa centre stage and a staircase leading to a hallway above, with bedrooms and the bathroom leading off it. Eight doors and a picture window in all. Your classic farce set. ‘That’s what it’s all about’ exclaims the director exasperatedly: ‘doors and sardines,’ as he summons the technician to make the set work.
Indeed it is. An estate agent (Daniel Rigby) and his bit on the side (Amy Morgan), are trying to have a bit of afternoon delight in one of the upstairs bedrooms – that old ‘showing a client round the premises’ wheeze – but the owner (Jonathan Cullen) and his wife (Debra Gillett), who are supposed to be in Spain, arrive home early. The house is also burgled by a world weary old lag (Simon Rouse). The housekeeper (Meera Syal) is not fazed by any of it. She’s just trying to grill her sardines in peace.
Neither couple knows the other is there. They all rush about the stage frenetically, just missing each other as they dive in and out of doors, becoming increasingly spooked when they find objects which have apparently appeared of their own accord – hence the importance of the sardines and of Dotty leaving them in the right place (not to mention the dress, the telephone and the box).
The second act is played behind the scene, so you see the other side of the set in all its grimy reality, with the actors scrambling up and down a rickety wooden staircase, popping in and out of the doors, apparently performing to an audience on the other side. By now the company is well in to its regional tour; feuding has set in; the director has jumped ship, to go and produce a Shakespeare play somewhere else, (but is back for the night to try and stop the leading lady from walking out – further complicated by the fact that he’s been sleeping with her and the assistant producer). Nerves are getting frayed; the actors, not to mention the back stage crew (Enyi Okoronkwo and Lois Chimimba) are on the point of killing each other.
Then the stage lights went out. Little wonder I was confused as to whether it was for real when a (real) technician came out and apologised and the curtain came down. When after several false starts (which were part of the play) the curtain rose again we were seeing the set from the front again, and that’s when things seriously start to unravel, with hilarious consequences.
It’s exhausting to watch. The actors were all very good and their timing was brilliant. If you like farce, you will love it. Personally I have a little trouble with being expected to believe that someone you saw thirty seconds ago, is now someone else – an Arab sheik no less, and the estate agent’s real client – just because he’s wrapped in a bedsheet. But I realise that I am being a spoil-sport here, as the rest of the audience found it uproariously funny. And hey if Shakespeare can get away with it for whole plays, so can Michael Frayn, as indeed he has been since the play was first produced at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1982.