Is Michael Frayn’s Noises Off the funniest play ever written? It’s ultimately a matter of taste, of course, but you would surely have to put it on any serious shortlist.
Brilliantly and intricately constructed, it tells the inside story of a doomed theatrical tour from its chaotic beginnings to ultimate collapse under pressure from alcohol, the inter-personal attractions and repulsions of its cast and crew, and the life-of-their-own intransigence of inanimate objects including sticking doors, telephone wires, boxes, contact lenses and, most inexplicably, plates of sardines.
The play, first staged in 1982, has also become something of a theatrical time capsule in that Nothing On, the play-within-a-play which ultimately defeats its increasingly baffled cast as the tour staggers, over three acts, from Weston-super-Mare to Stockton-on-Tees, is a sex farce of a kind which was once the staple of touring theatre but is now seemingly extinct.
Its great glory is the central act, in which the set is reversed so that we see Act 1 of Nothing On re-run from backstage, with the cast’s back-stabbing agendas seamlessly integrated with the action on stage. It is a tour-de-force of sight gags which requires split-second timing from the cast, and this one, in a revival of the production which began life at the National Theatre in 2000, responds brilliantly.
It could all seem a bit mechanical if the characters, their hang-ups and relationships weren’t so well drawn. But Maggie Steed, in particular, brings a real sense of defeated dignity to Dotty Otley, the evidently much-loved star of sitcom On the Zebras, who can’t get a grip on the sardine-toting role of housekeeper Mrs Clackett even though she has money invested in the tour.
Ben Hull, as the pretentious actor Garry Lejeune, playing the philandering estate agent who has lured blonde-but-dim tax inspector Vicki to a supposedly empty house in Nothing On, gives a commendably committed performance full of what look like extremely painful pratfalls.
There is good work all round from the rest of the cast, including Colin Baker following in the footseps of another former Dr Who, Sylvester McCoy, as Selsdon, the deaf old trouper with a fondness for a tipple. Maybe David Tennant will be ready to play it in around 30 years.
* Running time: Two Hours, 40 minutes. Until Saturday.