Noises Off at the Lyric Hammersmith review ****

Noises Off

Lyric Hammersmith, 24th July 2019

Noises Off will transfer to the Garrick Theatre from 27th September.

It is a generally accepted truism in luvvie-world that Michael Frayn’s Noises Off is one of the funniest plays. An opinion with which the Tourist heartily concurs.¬†Alongside Lysistrata and The Frogs, most of Shakespeare’s comedies, Volpone and The Alchemist, Tartuffe, Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters (Richard Bean’s version will appear on screen again on 26th September and a revival is due at the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch), Uncle Vanya, Loot, The Real Thing, Serious Money, Dead Funny, The Habit of Art, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Hangmen and The Play That Goes Wrong (whose makers have, not unreasonably, made a few quid following Michael’s Frayn’s lead). There’s probably a fair few more. But I haven’t seen them yet.

So I wasn’t about to miss this revival at the Lyric. And nor should you when it transfers to the West End. You know the drill or can easily find out. We see a touring performance of a sex farce, Nothing On, by one “Robin Housemonger”, or more precisely three performances of its first act: first in technical rehearsal at midnight the night before opening in Weston-Super-Mare, then from backstage a month later in Ashton-under-Lyme and finally from front of stage in Stockton-on-Tees at the end of the run. This is not an entirely happy troupe and the relationships between the cast, director and technical staff are, shall we say, complicated. Especially when their vanities, problems, passions and tantrums bleed into the performance. To, as the cliche goes, “hilarious effect”. So we get comedy driven by character, (notably the gap between on and off stage personas), situation, plot, wit and spectacle, through farce, slapstick and props. It is a treat for eyes, ears and also brain, as there is abundant comic logic just below the surface treats.

It requires immense skill to pull off. Not just from the cast but also from the creative team. To deliver a play within a play that doesn’t actually get pulled off. Michael Frayn completed the play in 1982 though the idea first came to him when watching one of his own farces, The Two of Us, from backstage in 1970. As with all of Mr Frayn’s plays, serious or comedy, he doesn’t stop where other writers might have done. He goes on buffing and polishing to create something close to perfection. Which I would contend he did, precisely, first time round here. though it hasn’t stopped him reworking it for subsequent revivals, and, as he reveals in the programme, actually editing out some unfortunate misprints which appeared in the original. Which is itself pretty amusing in a meta sort of way.

I can’t pretend this is quite up to the very high mark set by Lindsay Posner’s revival at the Old Vic in 2012. But it comes close. As it happens all the family saw that including LD, only 10 at the time. It is still, she says, the funniest thing she has ever seen, (along with the Mischief Theatre portfolio, so if you are tempted to take the nippers along don’t hesitate. In this production Headlong’s Jeremy Herrin directs which is helpful since he is the master of the high octane. Max Jones’s set does exactly what is required, front and back, as does Amy Mae’s lighting and Lorna Munden’s sound (which is at is most accomplished in the second act when the actors are effectively silent). And Complicite’s movement director, Joyce Henderson, shows why she is one of the best in the business.

Now it was pretty hot in the Lyric the night we went. Which wasn’t great for MIL who had to leave at the interval with the SO. A shame because I would have valued her opinion, since she is even more parsimonious with her praise that the SO. Still a thumbs up for the first half. It also meant that Daniel Rigby, as “leading man” Garry Lejeune probably lost a few pounds given how much he physically had to do. I was also taken with Lloyd Owen’s take on his namesake director, the supercilious predator Lloyd Dallas and with Jonathan Cullen’s take on the neurotic Frederick Fellowes. Frankly though a cast that includes the likes of Meera Seal as Dotty Otley who bankrolls the fictitious play, Simon Rouse as dipso lurvie Selsdon Mowbray and Debra Gillett as the maternal Belinda Blair, as well as Amy Morgan as the dramatically challenged Brooke Ashton, Lois Chimimba as put upon ASM Poppy and Enyi Okoronkwo as the even more put upon SM Tim, was always going to get this right, which with a couple of hutches they did handsomely.

Noises Off premiered at the Lyric Hammersmith, directed by Michael Frayn’s chief collaborator Michael Blakemore. It went on to a five year run in the West End. I hope they make a few quid from this revival.

And that Rachel O’Riordan’s in augural season turns out to be as good as it looks. There are still prime seats for a tenner at the previews of Solaris, Love, Love, Love and Antigone. Which frankly is a steal. The biggest bargain in London theatres anywhere right now IMHO.

Copenhagen at the Minerva Theatre Chichester review *****

heisenbergbohr

Copenhagen

Minerva Theatre Chichester, 6th September 2018

Michael Frayn wrote the funniest stage comedy of all time. Noises Off. OK well maybe it is only is the funniest of those comedies that I have seen. And maybe the two productions that I have seen, the NT one from 2000/2001 directed by Jeremy Sams, and the 2011/2012 Old Vic revival directed by Lindsay Posner, show it off to best effect. And the fact that Mr Frayn has sharpened it up with re-writes since it first appeared in 1982 helps. It is a farce about a farce about a farce and is brilliantly constructed. For sure the belly aches come from the visual humour and slapstick but real comedy also emerges from the characters “on” snd “off” stage personas and their relationships. Everyone should see this once in their life, (but not the film version – the whole point of this is that it is a theatrical experience and the film is rubbish). LD remembers it as the funniest thing she has seen on stage and she was only 10 at the time.

We also have to thank Mr Frayn for his pitch perfect English adaptations of Chekhov. The magic of Chekhov can prove elusive but a text from MF gives a good chance for a production of walking the tightrope between pathos and comedy. There are his novels as well. I have though, until now, never seen either of his more recent dramatic triumphs, Democracy or Copenhagen.

So thanks to Chichester Festival Theatre for putting on this revival. And to recruiting a cast of the calibre of Charles Edwards, Patricia Hodge and Paul Jesson. And to persuading, if he needed persuading, Michael Blakemore, who directed the NT premiere in 1998 to wave his magic directorial wand over this revival.

Copenhagen is not quite a perfect play. But it is so close that it barely matters. Mr Frayn is a very, very clever man. So naturally he takes a very, very big subject for Copenhagen. The is the imagined conversation between Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr in Nazi occupied Copenhagen during WWII about whether eminent nuclear physicists could or should attempt to prevent the building of a nuclear bomb. The exact circumstances of the meeting in 1941 are unclear from their writings, though Bohr seemed to react angrily to whatever Heisenberg brought to him, and there has been much subsequent debate, in part fuelled by MF’s play, about exactly what happened. Out of this admittedly dramatic conceit MF constructs a play of intense philosophical enquiry, offers us both a science and a history lesson, shows the loving and fraught relationships between the eminent Bohr (then 55), his wife and amanuensis Margarethe and his one time student Heisenberg (39), and. as if that wasn’t enough, reminds us of the tension between the “objective” universe around us and our “subjective” view of that world that our consciousness constructs.

The memories of the meeting between the two physicists are played out in various ways, three times “another draft”. Time is not linear. We see several versions of events. The protagonists do not always occupy the same time and place. It is not always clear if they are talking to each other or to us the audience. This “plot” and the movement of the actors mirrors the behaviour of atomic particles in Peter J Davison’s monochromatic set. Did Heisenberg come to warn Bohr and, by implication, the allies about the Nazi nuclear programme? Or did he just want approval from his mentor? Or was he fishing for technical information on what was needed to trigger the required chain reaction? Did Bohr put him off the scent? How fervent was Heisenberg’s patriotism? Or his morality? Was he oblivious to what his country was doing? Did he help the half-Jewish Bohr and Margarethe escape from Denmark? How “guilty” did the scientists feel when looking back and are they trying to assuage that guilt – it was Bohr who ended up in Los Alamos after all?

MF cleverly uses anecdotes and the past history of the three protagonists to draw parallels with the scientific concepts they discuss. Skiing and table tennis act as metaphors to contrast the two men’s characters and approaches to scientific enquiry as well as a way in to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and Bohr’s complementarity principle. A pre-war train journey by Bohr shows how electron spin theory was disseminated across Europe and his movements mirror that of the particles he describes. A card game where Bohr bluffs by mistake points up the risk of nuclear proliferation. Toys and weapons are elided. The death by drowning of one of Bohr’s sons, Christian recurs as a motif for what might have happened if someone or something had intervened. (The video backdrop courtesy of Nina Dunn has a lot of waves, alluding to the drowning and presumably wave theory). There’s probably loads more I missed.

Even with these “simplifying” devices, (which, as the two scientists remind each other to revert to “plain” language for Margarethe’s sake, can sometimes patronise), this is dense stuff. But it doesn’t feel like it. Aside from one tiny slip, Paul Jesson as Bohr and, especially, Charles Edwards as Heisenberg, are utterly on top of the language, and Michael Blakemore’s direction ensures the delivery is perfectly placed. Patricia Hodge avoids smothering Margarethe with an overly haughty demeanour, protective of her husband and suspicious of Heisenberg, the nucleus revealing the human failings of both.

As I understand it, and I don’t, the Copenhagen Interpretation was proposed by Bohr and Heisenberg before the war as a way to reconcile different theories of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics can only predict the probabilities of what might happen in physical systems. The act of measurement affects the system to reduce to the one result that is observed. Like what MF is doing with the play. With us doing the measuring. Though we cannot be sure of the result.

Big ideas, and especially big scientific ideas, can often lead to big drama. But dramatists can often overreach themselves or retreat back into the human and not push us intellectually as hard as they should. Copenhagen, like Brecht’s Life of Galileo, doesn’t make that mistake. One of the best plays I have ever seen and, once fizzing, a near perfect production.