Saturday 20 January 2018

Noises Off: It's impossible not to laugh

Michael Frayn's supreme farce 'Noises Off' is coming to Dublin. Padraic McKiernan caught up with a cast at the top of their game

Michael Frayn's 'Noises Off' has been called the funniest play ever.
Michael Frayn's 'Noises Off' has been called the funniest play ever.

Padraic McKeirnan

Talk about a Tour de Farce. It could be that I am the first to avail of that opening line to describe Olivier Award-winning writer Michael Frayn's comedy farce Noises Off, but considering this accomplished hootathon has been enchanting both critics and audiences around the world since its West End theatrical debut back in 1982, that seems unlikely. So more certifiable proof that this bona fide side-splitter is right on the funny? No less a barbmeister than fabled 'Butcher of Broadway', the late New York Times theatre critic Frank Rich called Noises Off, "the funniest play written in my lifetime".

On the evidence of the production I witnessed in Edinburgh's suitably majestic King's Theatre recently, there is no end to its enviable longevity in sight.

Brought to Dublin by London's prestigious Old Vic Theatre Company, the show is coming to The Bord Gais Energy Theatre next month and it's a genuine case of prepare to be wooed, if not totally wowed.

If a smile hasn't broken across your face by the time the curtain falls, or to be literal, collapses on this slapstick symphony, it can only mean you need to ease up on those Botox treatments.

The set-up centres on a play-within-a-play scenario, as we see an ensemble of Z-list luvvies struggle against bad-luck, bad behaviour, and their own bad acting to put the finishing flourishes to the opening night of Nothing On. Think coma-inducing Carry On meets substandard Noel Coward and you're well on the way to knowing what to expect from some of the dubious delights offered by the prospect of Nothing On.

In case you can't remember how cheesy comedy often was in the Seventies, the boxes marked "fake sheik," "girl in underwear," and "trousers around the ankles" are ticked in a gloriously funny fashion by Frayn's delightfully knowing script.

The two stars of the show are Neil Pearson and Maureen Beattie and it's clear they remain both passionate and undaunted by the prospect. Pearson's stellar career includes roles such as one of Bridget's bosses in Bridget Jones's Diary and the fondly remembered Dave Charnley in the critically acclaimed Channel 4 comedy Drop the Dead Donkey. Maureen is an accomplished Shakespearean actress whose credits bear testimony to a broad range of achievement. How can you not be impressed by a CV that includes triumphing over the demands required of characters as diverse as Lady Macduff, Medea and the baddie in Mother Goose?

Farce is obviously close to their hearts as they both speak with authority on some of the greats. As befits a man who can wax lyrically on Henry Miller's Paris period, Neil name checks French farceur Feydeau during our conversation, while Maureen reminds me that Samuel Beckett was a big fan of the antics of that slapstick supremo, Buster Keaton.

The Irish connection is highly appropriate with Maureen, as she also reveals she was born in Bundoran. She's hoping to make a flying visit back to Donegal during the Dublin run.

And so to the show. The first act to Noises Off opens on the main reception room of a stately pile. It's the last night of rehearsals for Nothing On and it's fair to say that despair stalks the stage.

Played by a mesmeric Maureen, housekeeper Dotty Otley is struggling to remember her lines as her exasperated director, Lloyd Dallas (Neil Pearson) looks on from the stalls. Dotty's ineptitude is obviously taking its toll, but Lloyd's long night of the soul is destined to get longer as the other actors gradually make their entrances.

It's clear that miracles are going to be required if this play is destined to be all right on the night.

So far, so farcical? Most definitely. But there's more to come.

In the second act, the audience are given a fly-on-the-footlight perspective of this thespian train-wreck courtesy of a stage that has been turned 180 degrees. We can hear the actors performing out front, but the main action is backstage and it's understating the situation to suggest that chaos reigns

The third act marks a more recognisable return to conventional farce. This Keystone cast has come to the last night of their run and the production is all over the shop, to the point of being out on the street. Hilarity ensues as more anarchy and killer ad-libs are loosed upon the stage.

Such is the quality of the performances, however, you never lose sight of the reality that behind the pratfalls and the missed cues, this is a highly accomplished cast operating at the top of their game.

The funniest play ever written in my lifetime? I'm too big a fan of Martin McDonagh's The Lonesome West to quite go that far, but this is top-notch fare and a definite must-see.

'Noises Off' will play the Bord Gais Energy Theatre fromJuly 8-13. Tickets are on sale now. For more information and tickets, see www.bordgaisenergy

Irish Independent

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