Michael Frayn’s backstage comedy, Noises Off, is the theatre’s answer to Trooping the Colour. Everyone agrees that it’s an amazing display of synchronised choreography but does anyone actually want to see it? Yes, to judge by the press-night crowd at the Garrick. The joint was packed.
The show opens at the dress rehearsal of a bedroom farce where an incompetent actress, Dotty Otley, is listening to advice from an exhausted but infinitely patient director. She worries that she hasn’t got her lines right. A lot of them ‘had a very familiar ring’, the director assures her. The gentle wit of these passages is soon overtaken by physical antics as the production encounters endless technical snags. Cues are missed. Props go astray. Oily sardines are upended over the playing area. An alcoholic actor playing the Burglar locks himself in the gents. A flask of extra-strong whisky is passed around, which turns sober thespians into combative drunkards. Sexual rivalries add spice to the mix. The director is dating two members of the company at once and he recruits a wardrobe manager to send tokens of affection which end up in the wrong hands.
In the second act, with the set reversed so that the backstage area is presented to the audience, a comic ballet takes place during which the performers pursue physical vendettas while attempting to fulfil their roles in the on-stage farce as well. The storyline is all but impossible to follow because each of the eight actors is playing two characters at once. Inevitably one’s eyes turn to the elaborate stunts which the director, Jeremy Herrin, orchestrates with astonishing precision. It’s like watching the internal workings of some hyper-efficient German automobile. Easy to admire but hard to love, perhaps.
Meera Syal does a fine turn as Dotty, a posh actress who won fame playing a lollipop lady in a popular TV soap, On The Zebras. Syal’s overdone cockney accent is a brilliant feat of subtle exaggeration. Simon Rouse, as the drunken actor Selsdon Mowbray, delivers an amusing portrait of a leading Shakespearean on the skids. Lisa McGrillis and Daniel Rigby play an entertaining pair of accident-prone thesps but their roles are as flimsy as tissue. Throughout the show I was surrounded by overexcited fans who were howling with merriment.
Perhaps they were responding to the programme notes which quoted a critic who saw the original production in 1982. ‘My lungs heaved and threatened to crack open,’ he told us. ‘My eyes tried to spiral into orbit. My face reddened and swelled. My lungs suppurated liquid… I tried and tried not to laugh and abjectly failed.’ When I saw that production I had the opposite problem. I tried and tried to laugh and abjectly failed. The whole thing seemed calculated, mechanical and curiously passionless. This version is better but it remains a circus routine rather than a play.
Toby Stephens is an actor who hasn’t quite found his slot. Is he a red-hot romantic, a dashing rotter or an amiable buffoon? He can play all three with ease. In Peter Nichols’s A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, he stars as Bri, a sardonic schoolmaster whose air of forced jolliness seems heartless and glib at first. But then his back story emerges. Bri and his wife Sheila have spent 15 years caring for a severely disabled daughter. The weight of this responsibility has driven their marriage to the brink of collapse, and now they face worse anxieties as they consider packing the helpless girl off to a care home.
This harrowing play portrays the world of pain experienced by Nichols himself who raised a brain-damaged child. Stephens handles Bri’s varied registers with perfect fluency. He can be funny, moving, tender, and impishly amorous as well. Some of the script’s attitudes and language have dated badly. The couple’s best friends, Freddie and Pam, have never met the disabled girl whom they refer to as ‘a vegetable’. The clinicians use that term for her as well. When Stephens impersonates a German doctor he struts up and down like a neo-Nazi shouting ‘Gott im Himmel!’ and clicking his heels. That looks rather problematic nowadays.
Sheila (Claire Skinner) has a view of womanhood that seems positively medieval. She confesses to having enjoyed a handful of lovers before she married and she therefore labels herself ‘promiscuous’. Worse still, she admits that her sense of sexual shame forced her to ‘hold the baby back in’ during labour and thus to starve it of oxygen. No one challenges the bizarre idea that Sheila’s premarital romances led to her daughter’s disabilities.
On a lighter note, the couple’s lounge is dominated by a magnificent oak dresser which would sell for at least £1,000 today. It cost them ‘twelve and six’. That’s 62.5p.