Phoenix Theatre, London until March 11
On a dull, dank, depressing autumnal night 13 years ago, I set out with a heavy heart to see a musical called Too Close to the Sun that recounted the days leading up to Ernest Hemingway’s suicide.
In the first scene, a coffee table that was centre stage inopportunely collapsed. An actor then appeared carrying a cafetière and several cups. He decided to keep rigidly to the stage directions and laid the tray down on the less-than-rigid table. Gravity resulted in the coffee spilling all over the place and the cups smashing to the floor.
More actors appeared and one attempted to pour from the empty cafetière. This one relatively minor early mishap, like a single bad cockpit decision in an episode of Air Crash Investigation, was fast escalating out of all control.
Actors were soon slipping over the coffee, others were dissolving into laughter, while some members of the ensemble were trying to carry on regardless in a valiant but vain attempt to salvage at least some dignity from the trauma.
The audience, bemused at first, soon understood exactly what they were witnessing and started to laugh. With a friend – an old hack who’d
arrived at the theatre feeling just as morose as I was – we found ourselves collapsing into schoolboy giggles. Too Close to the Sun was to play for barely
two catastrophic weeks and was branded the most accident-prone show of all time. In 30 years of reviewing theatre, I can say with hand on heart it was my happiest ever night: my throat ached for several days afterwards because I’d laughed so much.
I tell you all of this as a roundabout way of explaining why I don’t find Michael Frayn’s Noises Off – a play about a play that goes badly wrong – remotely funny any more. When you have seen the real thing, this show seems more cynical and contrived than ever.
In the early 80s, when it first opened, I admit I loved it, but the problem is I’ve grown up a lot since then, and what seemed fresh and inventive all those years ago now seems limp and hackneyed. It’s essentially a one-joke show and it’s a joke that – thanks to the hugely successful The Play That Goes Wrong – has now been done to death.
The characters on the stage in Frayn’s frenetic comedy are all of them tired old theatrical stereotypes, and, whereas some previous casts have managed to breathe more life into them than there actually is, the actors in this revival play them very much on the level, which exposes their shallowness.
The plum role of Selsdon Mowbray, the drunk old thespian that Denholm Elliott made his own in the film adaptation of Noises Off, is here essayed by Matthew Kelly and his performance has all the subtlety one would expect of the grinning former Game for a Laugh presenter. I know we are all now supposed to take Kelly seriously as a proper, serious, grown-up actor, but I am sorry, I’m still struggling. He periodically looks to the audience expecting a laugh as if it’s a God-given right in this show, but I am afraid it isn’t, not any more.
Felicity Kendal, is, meanwhile, equally one-dimensional as the sardine-obsessed housekeeper Mrs Clackett and Joseph Millson, as the spurned Garry, is required not so much to act as to engage in a physical endurance test, continually dashing hither and thither to keep the show within a show from falling apart.
Seeing Noises Off now for maybe the fifth time – I’ve lost count – it occurs to me it’s not a great piece of writing at all, nor is it any kind of showcase for
great acting, but it’s a show of continual frantic movement, where it’s the players hitting the right marks on the stage, grabbing hold of the right props at the right time and somehow not collapsing, that this is all there is really to admire.
The director Lindsay Posner seems to have something of an obsession with this comedy – he presided, too, over the Old Vic’s revival in 2011 – but his obvious reverence for it and its writer has done neither any favours at all. The misogyny, for instance, in Lloyd Dallas, the director of the show-within-a-show – a pseudo-intellectual who sees women purely as prey – ought really to have been either expunged or rethought in 2023.
Still, Frayn would not appear to be very good at moving with the times. The play’s basic formula – the chaotic knock-on effects of something going wrong – he employs yet again in his latest novel, Skios. Still, if it makes him a living…