At some point during Act three, I am laughing so hard that I rifle in my bag for my inhaler – somewhere in the show between the cactus and the three burglars. The woman to my right is rocking backwards and forwards, dabbing tears of laughter from her cheeks, and the man to my left is slapping his thigh. Yes, actually slapping his thigh. This is the uproarious and loopy masterpiece that is Michael Frayn’s Noises Off.
The show invites audiences ‘behind the dressing room doors’ into the chaotic world of dress rehearsals, volatile actors and salacious romances. The script is acutely self-referential, affectionately poking and teasing the industry and the familiar characters within it; the director with something far more prestigious to be focusing on, the actors in a not-so-secret tryst, the desperately dishevelled and overworked understudy. They all collide and whirl around each other, taking the mantra ‘the show must go on’ to its bonkers extreme as their personal lives, the show and the set itself collapse merrily around them.
Max Jones’ set is a beautifully rendered living room and upper landing that is masterfully turned around for the second act. We join the company during their technical run of bedroom-farce Nothing On, only a few hours short of opening night. Their weary director Lloyd (Lloyd Owen) shepherds them from scene to scene, barking orders from the stalls, and boxes in the dress circle, doing all but tearing his hair out to keep the witless actors on task. For the many industry professionals gathered this evening, it is a welcome relief to be on the audience’s side of the panic for once!
The cast are electrifying as an ensemble and as individuals. Though each farcical in their own ways, no one personality dominates the action resulting in razor sharp comedic timing and beautifully balanced piece. Scenes progress with effortless precision, punctuated by a cacophony of slamming doors. In and out they stride, stumble and crash yet with the meticulous choreography of a prima ballerina. Through trouser dropping gags, errant tubes of super glue and a side-splitting trip over a pile of boxes, this slap-stick, ‘Carry On’ style comedy proves its timelessness with every new incarnation.
Meera Syal and Sarah Hadland are already legendary comedic powerhouses. Syal plays Dotty, the poised grand dame who in turn is playing Mrs Clakett, a doddering, absent-minded housekeeper. Hadland plays Belinda, the sweet-as-pie darling of the stage who in turn plays the oozing, flirtatious Flavia Brent. Expectations are high with such a talented pair in the cast and they do not disappoint.
An unexpectedly stand out performance comes from Daniel Rigby as Garry, whose devolution from foppish beau of Dotty to axe-wielding scorned lover has me gasping for air. His physical comedy is made even more hysterical by the vibrant shade of red he turns and the sweat pouring off of him from his exertions.
We see the cast attempt to perform Nothing On three times; the rehearsal, from backstage and their last catastrophic attempt to actually perform to us, the audience. The final performance is in such a state of disarray that it is a shadow of the original we saw just an hour before. Every second is joyful, silly and perfectly executed.
We clutch our chests, throw our heads back and for a moment achieve blissful clarity about the incredible world we occupy when stepping into the theatre. Yet underneath rests an enduring lesson about endurance, professionalism, the arts, and of course… sardines!
Noises Off is playing the Garrick Theatre until 4 January. For more information and tickets, visit the Nimax Theatres website.