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.

Insignificance at the Arcola Theatre review ****

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Insignificance

Arcola Theatre, 21st October 2017

Regular readers of this blog (don’t be shy) will know that I adore the work of Terry Johnson. As do a lot of proper theatre critic types. I also have a very soft spot for the Arcola. With this revival of Insignificance the combination delivers.

However, I see from some other reviews that not all are persuaded. This is par for the course with Terry Johnson. I think the way he mixes high and low culture, and the multiplicity of meaning he inserts into his texts can leave some audience members a bit cold. He is, as my mum would have said, a “clever clogs” ¬†and his humour is “knowing” with a capital K. In this play he is happy to trade ideas and words for the dramatic arc. The comedy, which often leavens Mr Johnson’s work, is less prominent in Insignificance and is downplayed by David Mercatali’s measured direction.

The Professor, played stoically by Simon Rouse, is in a hotel room, (Max Dorey’s utilitarian design copes with the Arcola space), working on the nature of space-time. He is interrupted by the Senator, played by Tom Mannion with increasing venom, who tries to bully him into testifying before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The Professor refuses. The Senator leaves. The Actress (an excellent Alice Bailey Johnson who just happens to be the playwright’s daughter) appears in a recognisable white dress and, initially, trademark breathless voice. She and the Professor discuss the nature of fame and celebrity, she demonstrates, in ecstatic fashion, the theory of relativity using toy props in the room and then she attempts to seduce the Professor. They are interrupted by the Ball-Player played by Oliver Hembrough, who is not best pleased. The Professor leaves. The Ball-Player sleeps through the Actress’s announcement that she is pregnant. Next morning the Senator returns, mistakes the Actress for a prostitute and hits her. The Professor returns, chucks his work out of the window to thwart the Senator who leaves. the Ball-Player returns. The Actress miscarries and tells the Ball-Player their marriage is over. The Actress and Professor remain. The time approaches 8.15pm. The Professor visualises his recurring nightmare of nuclear destruction.

Now when you put it like I appreciate it doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs. No so. Also it seems to me there is plenty going on in the play, it is just that it is confined to the one room. (Nic Roeg’s famous film version is obviously less claustrophobic). These characters are, of course, Albert Einstein, Joe McCarthy, Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio. None of this happened. But it might have done. That is the whole point. I never understand why people get worked up by drama which “strains credulity”. It is a play. It’s not real.

We see the world of science, politics, film and sport collide. These people were about as famous as it was possible to get in 1954 when the play is set. They still were in 1982 when the play was premiered at the Royal Court. And they still are today, notably in the case of Monroe and Einstein. The influence of fame and celebrity on the cultural superstructure is arguably even more profound. There was an actor in the White House when the play was written, there is a clown now. As Mr Johnson observes in a world which worships at the altar of celebrity society will fail to “question the power of the invisible”.

First and foremost the play is a meditation on the nature of fame, as many of Mr Johnson’s plays are. We think we know the public personae of these people and what they represent but we see very different identities in private. The Professor has sexual urges (Ms Monroe allegedly wanted to sleep with him). The Actress reveals a prodigious intellect in sharp contrast to Ms Monroe’s screen image. The Senator is an aggressive ideologue, as we liberal types would presuppose, but we shouldn’t forget that he mobilised an entire legislature to let him pursue his grotesque witch-hunt. The Ball-Player expresses his own renown in the most banal way through the greater number of bubble gum cards with his image when compared to peers. He too is more intelligent than the jock he presents but he sees little advantage in revealing this.

Mr Johnson also has some fun with other mind-bending scientific ideas with an off-stage cat belonging to a certain Mr Schrodinger and the Uncertainty Principle of Heisenberg. Science plays are ten a penny these days, not surprising as dramatists are creatures of wonder, but Terry Johnson was an early protagonist. He also squeezes in a Crucible gag. More moving are the Actress’s sorrow at her own objectification, the Ball-Player’s yearning for domestic normality and an heir and the literal cloud that hung over the Professor’s head in the latter years of his life as he reflected on the destructive power his science unleashed.

So there you have it. I would get it if this doesn’t float your boat but if any of this sounds remotely interesting please give it a go. You might be a convert.