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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Noises Off
Lyric Hammersmith Theatre   Summer 2019; Garrick Theatre Winter 2019-2020

There are few things as perfect in their way as a well-constructed and well-staged farce.

Michael Frayn's 1982 contribution to the genre (which premiered then at this same Lyric Hammersmith Theatre) has earned the stature of a classic, and even in a hit-and-miss production like this revival, guarantees an evening of almost uninterrupted laughs.

Noises Off is what joyless academics call metatheatre – that is, a play about making a play.

Act One shows the frantic last-minute rehearsals for a typical second-rate sex farce, the sort in which several people with one thing on their minds converge accidentally on the same spot, here a supposedly vacant country house. (Until the 1990s every West End season could be sure of having at least one of the type.)

Act Two is set backstage midway through a long tour, when romances and rivalries among the players have begun to complicate things. And Act Three puts us back onstage for the very last performance of the tour, when things are more likely to go wrong than right and nobody really cares any more.

You should be able to see the comic possibilities, all of which Frayn explots beautifully.

A successful farce requires three things: lots of doors, tight choreography, and speed.

The doors are for some people to come in through just as some are going out others, so they almost meet. The choreography is to make such near-misses and things like passed-along props almost balletic in their precision, and the speed is to keep the audience from ever having a chance, between laughs, to think about how silly it all is.

Jeremy Herrin's new production, as I suggested, gets a lot, but not all, of it right.

There are, at my count, eight doors and a set of windows, but they don't always open and close with the comic simultaneity you would wish for.

Some in the cast catch the Carry On character types delightfully. After a bit of a slow start, Meera Syal slides right into the role of the scatter-brained actress appropriately named Dotty, Jonathan Cullen is funny as a dim-witted actor forever in search of Method motivation, and Lloyd Owen hits and sustains the director's near-panic desperation hilariously.

But Daniel Rigby hasn't quite found the right level of near-cartoon playing as the totally inarticulate leading man, nor (in these enlightened times) does Amy Morgan seem comfortable as the obligatory brainless blonde.

There are moments of sheer perfection in the staging – watch, for example, how a fire axe (Don't ask) passes from hand to hand at one point in the backstage scene. But a similar set of sight gags involving plates of sardines never quite come off, and there are too many points when just a second or two too much passes between things that ought to happen simultaneously.

Still, these are cavils. Noises Off delivers far more genuine laughs than you really have any right to expect from an evening at the theatre. Go, and enjoy.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Noises Off  - Lyric  Hammersmith Theatre 2019

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