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THEATRE Tragedy tomorrow …
Noises Off THE OLD VIC, LONDON
It’s an accepted fact of showbusiness that bad times are good times for comedy. The Second World War encouraged a rush of romps and musicals and, perhaps appropriately given the behaviour and bonuses of the bankers who triggered the world economic emergency, the most popular theatrical genre of the downturn is farce. The hottest ticket in London remains One Man, Two Guvnors at the Adelphi but Michael Frayn’s Noises Off is close behind in guaranteeing a cheeringup. Michael Frayn’s 1982 backstage comedy ran for five years in Michael Blakemore’s premiere production and three in the 2000 revival by Jeremy Sams and, in Lindsay Posner’s latest major restaging at the Old Vic, is confirmed as almost certainly the most relentlessly funny play ever written. Yet Frayn told me, in a recent TV interview, that, after the dress rehearsal 30 years ago, the director apologised to him for failing to make the play work. I heard stories of similar pessimism late in the rehearsals for One Man, Two Guvnors. It seems that the company working on a comedy, even a great one, become sick of the material through repetition and need the fresh reaction of viewers who don’t know the jokes.
Celia Imrie in Noises Off: ‘the perfect antidote to the current gloom’
In the case of Noises Off, it must have been especially painful for that first cast to believe that their efforts had failed because the subject of the play is theatrical failure. Frayn was also taking a big risk because the structure depends on recapitulation to a degree generally considered unwise by professors of playwrighting. The same few scenes of a terrible English sex farce – Nothing On by Robin Housemonger, complete with its own programme within the programme – are seen first at a dress rehearsal in Weston-super-Mare, then four weeks into a disintegrating tour at an Ashton-underLyne matinee and finally as the company implodes during the final performance in Stockton-on-Tees.
The major twist is that the middle sequence is seen from backstage but, through the various productions, Frayn has progressively perfected the text so that there is now almost no repetition at all. The second act is almost a silent comedy as the cast are forced to settle their personal problems and grievances with each other in the speechless hush required behind the scenery while, by the third act, the dialogue and action are so sabotaged that Nothing On has become almost a different play.
Previous stagings have contained stronger portrayals of some roles and funnier individual moments – the leading man’s terrifying trip downstairs is insufficiently alarming in this version, perhaps because of tightening healthand-safety rules – but Posner’s interpretation finds many new possibilities.
The extent to which the production’s problems are driven by romantic tensions current and past has never been so clearly delineated and, in this rendition, Noises Off becomes a seriously dark comedy, connecting to Frayn’s more openly intellectual and philosophical plays, books and novels. The drive of the desperate, depressed, bruised or drunk performers to keep making their entrances and exits while pretending that everything is fine is surprisingly moving and metaphorical of the human condition, while remaining consistently funny enough to threaten respiration.
Robert Glenister brings memorable sarcasm and menace to the part of the director, while Jamie Glover’s juvenile lead thrillingly achieves one of the hardest stage directions ever written, when his character has to run down and up flights of stairs with his shoelaces tied together. As long as the recession has left you with enough money for theatre tickets, this production is the perfect antidote to the current gloom. Mark Lawson
RADIO Beyond celebrity
Make Me a National Treasure BBC RADIO 4
G yles Brandreth began his enquiry into the nature of National Treasuredom (28 December 2011) in the Victorian room of the National Portrait Gallery, flanked by representations of Dickens and the Brontës, and alert to questions of cultural identity and heritage. The expert witnesses turned out to be the journalists Danny Finkelstein, Natalie Haynes and Bidisha, their insights occasionally abetted by an academic sociologist, bona fide treasures such as Dame Edna Everage (“an international treasure” as she proudly insisted) and self-proclaimed also-rans like Edwina Currie. The difficulties of the winnowing process were constantly stressed – as with poetry, it seemed easily to recognise the thing rather than to precisely define it – and ingenious distinctions were drawn between National Treasuredom (elusive, tricksy, liable to evade the clutch of those who actively sought it out) and mere celebrity.
As for the mystery of qualification, the panel was convinced that age, the simple achievement of still being there and sticking to one’s guns, counted for a great deal. There was fond mention, in this category, of Tony Benn, Sir David Attenborough and the Queen. Rootedness and perseverance, a sense of not having travelled too far from the community which one served, was thought to admit the soccer commentator John Motson. The advantages of a good war (Dame Vera Lynn) were much advertised, along with the thought that the status implied a kind of superannuation (Sir Terry Wogan). As Natalie Haynes put it, you had to be on the shelf – “a high and golden” repository, but a shelf nonetheless.
To a genuine talent (Sir Alan Bennett), combined with the faint air of curmudgeonliness (David Hockney and the fuss he makes about not being allowed to smoke) could be added a devotion to causes that were not so much good as incontestable (Joanna Lumley and her Gurkhas).
Programmes of this kind, especially those fronted by Gyles Brandreth, invariably fall between two stools. A serious attempt to account for a cultural phenomenon, or a bit of fun? No one seemed to know, and the result was a default position down in the valley of Dame Edna-style facetiousness. Asked to come up with a definitive list, the panel settled on such luminaries as Miss Lumley, Sir Bobby Charlton, Sir Alan and Co., with Carol Ann Duffy shaping up nicely on the margins. Brandreth was assured that if he worked hard on his act, there might still be a chance, while Stephen Fry’s absence from the proceedings loomed like an iceberg above the Titanic’s prow. D.J. Taylor
7 January 2012 | THE TABLET | 23