The 'vital beat' is missing from this Old Vic touring production of Michael Frayn's farcical comedy
Michael Frayn has described the experience of writing Noises Off as akin to trying to make a sculpture out of jelly – every time you change something in one of the acts, it bulges out in the other two.
Frayn's vivid analogy is aptly made. Premiered in 1982, this intelligent, intricately structured comedy is a play within a play within a play, in which Frayn ingeniously packs one act into three – or three into one, depending on how you look at it.
The notion sprang to mind when he was standing in the wings watching The Two of Us, a farce he had written for the late Lynn Redgrave. He was struck by the fact that the behind-the-scenes shenanigans were even funnier than the scenarios seen by the audience and he figured that it would be amusing to attempt to write something comic from a backstage perspective.
And so emerged Nothing On, a fictional riot of misunderstandings, mistaken identities and misplaced sardines, which forms the bedrock of Noises Off. In pursuing this fiendishly clever conceit down to the last detail, Nothing On even carries its own authentic programme integrated into the main programme notes of every performance.
Lindsay Posner's award-winning production for the Old Vic successfully transferred to the West End, and a recast touring version is currently on the 14th stop of a 17 venue tour around the UK and Ireland – the first time that Kevin Spacey's company has embarked on such an undertaking.
In a dizzying series of Chinese puzzles, act one sees a frustrated director rehearsing the opening scene of Nothing On and counting down the minutes to opening night with a bunch of misfit actors, who are unsure of their lines and cannot even enter and exit on cue.
Act two is the same scene repeated, but this time set backstage during a mid-week matinee in Ashton-under-Lyne, where an audience of pensioners appear blissfully unaware of the real life melodrama unravelling behind the opening and closing doors.
Act three is yet another re-run of the scene at the end of the tour, when the enmities and conflicts that have been simmering during the past weeks explode onto the stage, shattering the plotline and leaving the cast floundering in ad lib hell.
It takes a strong cast to pull off the demands of this physically draining play, which not only sends up the acting fraternity something rotten but also exposes uncertainties, anxieties and dependencies among a group of human beings, who make a living out of pretending to be someone else.
All seven actors commit sincerely to their characterisations but, at this stage of the tour, there is a sense that, like the cast of Nothing On, a touch of road fatigue is starting to set in.
In Peter McKintosh's glossy set, Neil Pearson – who spends most of act one shouting instructions from the auditorium – skilfully captures the mounting desperation of director Lloyd Dallas, who has done just about all he can do with this collection of third-raters and whose attention is now focused on his next job, a new production of Richard III, which will bring its own burdens.
Suave, smug and sarcastic, Lloyd is also a sexual predator, who paints himself into an awkward corner between stage manager Poppy (a somewhat one-note Danielle Flett) and air-headed Brooke (Thomasin Rand). However, the latter relationship is uncomfortably skewed by Rand opting to play Brooke less as a pragmatic actress, who willingly strips to her underwear in the course of her job, than as a goofily innocent young woman at the mercy of exploitative men.
Veteran actor Geoffrey Freshwater is sweetly appealing as the elderly Selsdon, whose lifestyle revolves around trips to the pub, visits to the lavatory and error-strewn stage entrances. He is quite the pet of Sasha Waddell's cut-glass Belinda, a real trouper, the head girl of the cast, encouraging, supporting and nursing Chris Larkin's inadequate, abandoned Freddie through the wreckage of his performance and his disintegrating marriage.
Maureen Beattie is splendid as the well-named Dotty, confused beyond belief both by the comings and goings of her role as the put-upon housekeeper and by her fraught affair with younger leading man Gary Lejeune (David Bark-Jones). She pulls out all the stops in the mayhem of act two, delivering a masterclass of physical and expressive comedy.
But for all its speed and hysteria, the scene as a whole seems to lack the usual levels of spontaneity and unpredictability. The combined brilliance of script and stage directions have the power to reduce audiences to total helplessness on the basis of their not knowing what unforeseen disaster is about to materialise next
While the helper-skelter plot and quick fire repartee proceed apace and prompt widespread waves of laughter, a few glitches in diction cancel out some of the play's funniest lines. There is no doubting the quality of the production and, of course, the play's 30-year old credentials stand unchallenged.
Despite the effort and dedication invested by the cast, the subtlety of the humour feels overworked and telegraphed en route to the climax of the big set-pieces and, somewhere along the line, a vital beat appears to be missing in the delivery of Frayn's fast and finely-tuned comic precision.