Timing is everything.
It’s never more true than in theatre and, in theatre, it’s never more true than with farce.
The Old Vic and West End smash hit Noises Off has no shortage of plaudits to its name. In its 31-year history the Michael Frayn masterpiece has been enjoyed across London and the UK, winning multiple awards and being hailed as one of the greatest British comedies ever written.
Yes, that may read like over-egging the pudding, but an evening spent watching the wheels fall off Frayn’s farce is to be in the very eye of the perfect storm.
Hurtling along at breakneck speed it follows the backstage antics of a touring theatre company as they stumble their way through rehearsals in Weston-super-Mare to a shambolic Wednesday matinee in Ashton-under-Lyne and a final disastrous performance in Stockton-on-Tees.
First up, from front of house, Neil Pearson (Drop the Dead Donkey) played the exasperated director mere hours before curtain up on the first night of fictional farce Nothing On.
The subjects of the director’s ire included dotty housekeeper Dotty played by Maureen Beattie (Lewis, The Bill, Taggart) and doddery burglar Selsdon courtesy of Geoffrey Freshwater (Foyle’s War.)
The play within a play itself was nothing special dramatically, although the appropriate number of phones ringing, doors banging and trousers dropping did coax forth a giggle, but it was the layering of plot over plot that really made the sides split, and after the interval, the regular giggles turned to a full-blown snort, as we sat back of house watching the action – the cast now halfway through their 12 week run, in turns lusting for and hating each other.
Watching the by-now familiar Nothing On from behind the large, two storey set was the backdrop for the action backstage, much of it played out in silence with grand gestures and perfect farcical propping with flowers, whisky and cacti all getting a look in.
Jumping to the third and final act, the play and its actors were in tatters on the last show. The cast was split in three – those sticking to the script, no matter the cost; those attempting to improvise a new script with disastrous results; and those who lost it and threw caution to the wind. It was hilarious and excruciating in equal measure.
Timing was the glue that held it all together – or, put another way, it took a cast of absolute experts to make a show that was falling apart look so perfectly formed.