The Old Vic’s Christmas show ‘Noises Off’ brings tears of laughter to the eyes even after 30 years. Michael Frayn’s 1982 classic has been revived many times and has been seen by most theatre aficionados.
The device of a play within a play, with the added complication of seeing the play 'from behind' ie from the actors' point of view as well as the audience's, can hardly be taken in at the first viewing.
It is dependent on exemplary timing and a slick production. 'Nothing On', the farce within, is set in a posset mill [sic] with many doors to be worked into the plot. Celia Imrie (playing Dotty Otley, playing Mrs Clackett, the hapless cleaning lady) revs the action up with a procession of plates of sardines. The real life relationships of the actors become entwined with the performance. The play's director, played by Robert Glenister, is having an affair with one of the actresses. The assistant stage manager Poppy (Aisling Loftus) is also having an affair with him.
The first half whizzes along -it is the dress rehearsal for the play. So far so good. The second half, confusingly also 'Act One' in the programme, looks at the play in reverse. We recognise the dialogue but we see the other side of the action as well as the rather messy relationships. The running gag of the sardines is joined by the whisky bottle to be kept out of the hands of old alcoholic actor Selsdon Mowbray (strangely rather like Uncle Albert), a cactus and an axe.
The precision timing, with actors forced to hop upstairs or make super quick exits/entries, is well done, though veering a bit too close to slapstick.
The whole is highly recommended, whether or not you have seen it before it before. It makes a good entertaining change from a pantomime, and the run continues until 10 March.