TIM WALKER reviews Noises Off at the Garrick Theatre, and reminisces on the play’s former glory
When it’s done correctly, Noises Off, Michael Frayn’s comedy about life backstage, should look like a perfectly-choreographed ballet. Actors need to pass on props – such as plates of sardines, telephones and suitcases – to one another with split-second timing, but also logic. The punters need to understand why it’s important to the plot of the farce-within-a-farce that, say, the sardines are on a table beside the sofa and not anywhere else. They need, too, to be made to care when it all goes wrong.
Over the years, I’ve seen some hugely involving productions of this classic and they have often reduced me to tears of laughter. They reached their apogee with Jeremy Sams’ 2001 entry with Lynn Redgrave and Stephen Mangan. I remembered it with nostalgia watching this revival, not least because Mangan’s face – scarcely looking a day older – is to be seen on the billboards for The Man in the White Suit, just a few yards down the road at the Wyndham’s Theatre.
The fundamental problem with Jeremy Herrin’s latest clumsy stab at Noises Off is that he plays it simply as slapstick comedy. It doesn’t seem to matter to him why the sardines are where they are and he certainly hasn’t taken sufficient trouble to explain it clearly enough to the audience.
Meera Syal is hopelessly miscast as the housekeeper Dotty Otley – she’s simply not scatty enough – and Lloyd Owen reduces the director to little more than an annoying heckler seated in the stalls with no obvious feel for what theatre ought to be about.
Plays about life on the boards – even comedies – need to have at their hearts a fundamental love of the profession. I have seen it in the best productions of Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser and also in David Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre. This production, by contrast, seems coolly indifferent to it. It seems to regard actors as silly luvvies to be made fun of and mocked.
Frayn wrote the play in 1982 when there were still a lot of good old-fashioned repertory companies operating up and down the country like the troupe portrayed here. There really were drunken old thesps like Selsdon Mowbray – played this time by Simon Rouse – and they were indulged and even loved by audiences who got used to them missing their cues and slurring their lines. The alcoholism of Mowbray is, by the way, all but forgotten in this production: I hardly remember Rouse taking so much as a single swig and he looked as sober as a judge throughout.
The casting of a man of colour in Adrian Richards as the stagehand Tim did make for the only amusing scene in the whole show: when he has to suddenly understudy in Mowbray’s role, his fellow cast members look at him stunned and ask: what happened?
Ultimately, however, it all felt like being reunited with an old and dear friend sadly diminished by time and circumstances. I’d rather have remembered this show as it was.