Noises Off at Theatre Royal
Back in the distant mid-twentieth century there used to be a popular theatrical phenomenon on called the Whitehall farce. These comedies, (very) mildly risqué for the time, involved stage sets where an unfeasible number of doors facilitated the appearance of characters and props in the wrong place/at the wrong time in pursuit of a plot of supreme silliness, usually centred on someone hoping for a quick bit of illicit nookie behind one of those very doors. One chap would hilariously lose his trousers, one actress would appear in tastefully provocative lingerie and there would be misunderstandings and misidentifications galore. Don’t judge – it was a different world back then.
In 1982 Michael Frayn wrote the first act of a typical example called “Nothing On” , but there was a cunning trick to it. The ludicrous plot involved a tax-exile couple sneaking back to their English home just as an opportunistic estate agent is hoping to use their bedroom for a sneaky tryst before showing an Arab sheikh over the property. There is also a forgetful housekeeper, an elderly burglar and the all-important plate of sardines. No sooner has the audience begun to savour these predictable devices than the set-up of this fiction dissolves into Frayn’s witty deconstruction of the tradition, with the stock characters revealed as an acting company whose chaotic, ego-driven personal lives become just as frenetic as the farce within a farce.
While still capable of provoking hilarity with a simple “the play will commence in three minutes …” announcement, “Noises Off” has dated slightly as attitudes have changed (drape any bloke in a sheet and he’s instantly a sheikh) and as memory of the original farces fades into the past. The clever construction of Fran’s play, however, loses nothing as it continues to draw in the audience, and here the sheer pace and energy of the production brought it whirling triumphantly to its increasingly absurd conclusion. It helped that the vast experience of a seasoned cast was so apparent, with particular kudos to Matthew Kelly’s amiably incoherent performance as Selsdon, drunken actor/fictional burglar and everyone’s favourite character.