Michael Frayn’s Noises Off this week returns to it’s home at the Lyric Hammersmith after a break of 37 years. The Lyric has itself changed in that time, it’s proscenium arch and Victorian stalls now encased in modern boxes lumped atop other modern boxes, but this meta-farce remains the same as ever.
The play focusses on the goings-on of a cast as they rehearse and then twice perform the first act of Nothing’s On, a farce-within-a-farce. It is this retelling where the play makes magic happen, but expect a bumpy ride to get there. Admittedly the sour-faced bastards of press night (your correspondent et al.) may not have been the most un-snobbishly welcoming audience to the humour of a bawdy 1970s knockabout farce of which the play is a parody, but almost 40 years on the height of farce is even more of a distant memory than when the play was first written. It is to this end that the first act, although entertaining, came to feel like an introduction wherein the jokes didn’t quite land.
Of course, this is the way it is supposed to be. The farce-within is supposed to be dated, it’s supposed to be crap, and the cast pulls off their roles-within-roles incredibly well. The play builds this awkwardness throughout its first act, which is what left me feeling entertained, but uneasy in an audience who at points didn’t seem wholly on board.
In the play’s second act, we see the backstage equivalent of what went before. Art imitates life, which is imitating the art-within-the-art. It makes your head spin, and is a total joy to behold! It is here, where the dialogue stops, that the script really begins to come to life. The actors frantically run around in silence, to the muffled sounds of their lines from the first act heard through the set. The writing is smart, the cast is spectacular, the pace frenetic and the laughs constant. Multiple jokes happen at once as the cast-within-the-play bickers with one and other, ruining the show-within-the-show as they go. There is such value for money here, and I have no doubt that under a second viewing there are a whole new set of jokes to discover.
Which leads me onto the programme. If I was writing for Theatre Programme Digest (and who knows, someday maybe I will) then this would be possibly the easiest 5 stars I could ever give. The value for money approach taken by Fryan in making every moment of the show as joke intensive as possible is also that taken by the programme, which comes with a programme-within-a-programme for the show-within-a-show. The attention to detail in here is spectacular and to be praised, but more importantly, it’s just funny. Not a little bit funny, not mildly amusing, but actually genuinely funny. Well worth the extra £4 and I implore you to buy it, read it and treasure it.
The first act’s slow build and cringeworthy blurring of the line between what is play, what is play-within-play and what is genuinely happening to culminate in a beautifully satisfying end. I left the Lyric tickled, wanting more, and mentally searching for a place on my bookshelf to keep the programme.
- By Michael Fryan
- Directed by Jeremy Herrin
- Cast; Lois Chimimba, Jonathan Cullen, Debra Gillett, Amy Morgan, Enyi Okoronkwo, Lloyd Owen, Daniel Rigby, Simon Rouse, Meera Syal
- Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith
- Until 3rd August 2019
- Time:19:30 (Running time 2hrs 10mins including interval)