THIS revival of Michael Frayn’s beloved fractious farce arrives in York in the wake of Mischief’s Magic Goes Wrong, The Comedy About A Bank Robbery and, twice, The Play That Goes Wrong.
If you loved the madcap malarky of those Mischief-making feats of furiously fast physical theatre, take a step back in time to savour the abiding joys of Frayn’s 1982 comedy, now an avuncular forerunner that still brings the house -and stage – down in 2023, 23 years after being elected one of 100 best plays of the 20th century in the National Theatre’s Millennial retrospective.
Frayn, Guardian feature writer-turned playwright, has tweaked his script for the 40th anniversary tour, now on its second leg with only Matthew Kelly reprising his role from last year’s travels.
He may be spotted off-stage with a walking stick, nursing an injured knee from his exertions on two new hips, but once the performance starts, he “feels like a gazelle” at 73, his burglar character leaping through a broken window again and again.
Frayn revels in taking the Michael out of the fallibility, frailties, foibles and luvvie excesses of the acting profession – sometimes accused of taking itself too seriously – but been-there, done that actors love it. Felicity Kendal was in last year’s company; now Kelly’s old thespian lush, Selsdon Mowbray, is joined by such touring campaign veterans as Liza Goddard, Simon Coates, Lucy Robinson and Dan Fredenburgh (although Mark Middleton is ably deputising for him all week as the increasingly vexed Garry Lejeune).
Frayn puts the worst traditions of touring theatre to the sword, from flings and fallouts to coarse acting and stage calamities, over three acts of a farcically bad play within his very good one. The “bad” is Nothing On, a very British trouser-dropping farce with jokes cornier than a cob and doors galore – seven in all – but no escape from the hapless, hopeless show or tour contract as it hobbles from fraught, fractured rehearsals to a last night from hell after 12 weeks for its cast of has-beens, never-beens and desperate newcomers.
As a pleasingly full house looks on, we join the cast of Nothing On at a technical rehearsal so behind schedule there will be no dress rehearsal, everyone playing catch-up from the off. Oxbridge-educated director Lloyd Dallas (Simon Shepherd, all in black with a splenetic mood to match) is already dreaming of his next engagement (Shakespeare’s Richard III in Wales).
In the meantime, he has trapped himself between the affections of fallow assistant stage manager Poppy Norton-Taylor (Nikhita Lesler) and his new catch, the eager but dim Brooke Ashton (Lisa Ambalavanar). Watch out for her exaggerated arm movements, a show in themselves,
The tour-funding veteran trouper, scatty Dotty Otley (Liza Goddard, such lovely comic timing throughout), has already seduced self-appointed leading man Garry Lejeune (Mark Middleton).
Lucy Robinson’s eternally bubbly and unflappable Belinda Blair supplies the backstage gossip and tea and sympathy. Simon Coates’s forgetful, flaky luvvie Frederick Fellowes, Kelly’s old soak Selsdon Mowbray and Daniel Rainford ‘s quietly scene-stealing, overstretched stage manager Tim Allgood are in need of the director’s reassurance, another drink and sleep respectively.
Act One, on Simon Higlett’s typical touring stage, is all sweetness and light and mutual support, save for the barbed tongue of the exasperated director. By Act Two, one month into the tour, relationships are strained, gloves off, and now witnessed backstage, the side you never normally see.
Picking up the pace, Posner’s cast applies manic energy, humorous physicality and expressive comedy skills to the clashing company’s skirmishes as vendettas and alcohol abuse infect the performance. Silence – necessary backstage – is golden in Frayn’s hands as Nothing On staggers on and Ruth Cooper-Brown’s movement and fight direction comes to the sublime fore.
Then, suddenly, a technical hitch for real, as chance would have it in a play full of them, that required the dinner-jacketed stage manager to make an announcement.
Thankfully, the tabs’ malfunction was not the final curtain, and Act Three could proceed. War is waged on all fronts on the company’s last night in Stockton-on-Tees, the end of the line in every way as Nothing On – seen from the stage again after a round of applause for the rotating stage manoeuvres – becomes a mere side-show to the vituperative settling of scores.
If you have never seen the comic potential in sardines, plates and plates of them, they are yet another reason to savour Noises Off, amid the glorious shenanigans of actors acting up.
Performances: 7.30pm nightly, plus 2pm Thursday and 2.30pm Saturday matinees. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.