Forty-one years later, Michael Frayn’s peerless farce within a farce is still guaranteed to leave audiences gasping with laughter, even if it has long outlived the sex comedies it set out to spoof in 1982. It’s meticulously plotted, ruthlessly funny, and always sounds fresh: last night, jokes about tax evasion came especially loudly.
Lindsay Posner’s revival features exactly the kind of stars of all stripes – Felicity Kendal, Matthew Kelly, Alexander Hanson – who could have made a farce of pants on the street in the sixties or seventies. It’s slow and curiously silent in the first act, as the troupe of vain and needy actors stumble through rehearsals for a terrible farce called Nothing On.
But it gathers momentum in the sublime second act, when we witness jealousies and foibles wreaking havoc behind the production’s silent chaos; and third, when we watch the show fall apart in front. The whole is infused with a wry affection for actors and stage comedy and theatrical tradition, including the careless romances that happen on tour. It’s also quietly profound, exploring the existential despair that comes when you realize that no one is in control.
But mostly Noises Off is just blissfully, brilliantly funny. Kendal is well cast and wildly hilarious, if slightly OTT, in her nervous manner and frown of disapproval as aging sitcom darling Dotty Otley, who has staked her savings on comedy. Joseph Millson bears the heroic weight of physical comedy, staggering up and down stairs and through slamming doors (that old farce standard) with his shoelaces tied together, like his toyboy lover and costar Gary Lejeune.
Alexander Hanson is undersized as cocky director Lloyd Dallas, who is involved with both showbiz ingenue Brooke (Sasha Frost) and young stage manager Poppy (Pepter Lunkuse). Though the show uses sexist bedroom farce tropes, I think Frayn is pretty clear about how Dallas harnesses the power of him.
Tracy-Ann Oberman is a delight as Belinda, the cast’s regally wriggling gossip and likable repository (Katherine Kingsley takes over the part from Feb. 13), while Matthew Kelly’s selectively deaf and drunk ol’ ham Selsdon Mowbray non-sequiturs they add a surreal dimension.
My parents took me to the original run of Noises Off as a teenager, I found it incredibly entertaining and have watched every major London revival since. I am struck by individual threads each time. Brook’s determination to deliver his lines in order, no matter what – unless he loses a contact lens, in which case everything stops – is always wonderful.
In this show, I enjoyed the hapless Frederick’s (Jonathan Coy) desperate need to find his motivation. And the way the complicated props in Nothing On (a telephone, an airline bag, several plates of sardines) are mirrored (by a fire axe, a bottle of whiskey and several bouquets of flowers) in the silent spectacle behind the fifth act of the second act.
But most of all I was amazed once again how a new ensemble has mastered a fiendishly complex piece of set design, full of verbal and visual gags that play out and pay off countless times over. Minor issues aside, Frayn’s comic book classic appears to be bulletproof. Hats and pants, off to him.
Phoenix Theater, through March 11; atgtickets.com