There's no point in a company's deciding to stage Noises Off unless it's done really well. The play has a simple plot yet it calls for slick delivery, impeccable timing and actors fit enough to run around seemingly incessantly for most of the evening. Thankfully Ian Talbot's production for Birmingham REP makes all the right noises.
Noises Off has been described in some quarters as the funniest play of the 20th century. I certainly wouldn't argue with that.
It features a touring company's staging of a farce, Nothing On - the sort of post-war fare that graced theatres and even television screens - from rehearsal through to the final night of a gruelling 12-week tour of towns such as Weston-super-Mare, Lowestoft and Stockton-on-Tees. The show contains double entendres, overstated acting, a scantily clad actress and exaggerated incidents including trousers falling around ankles.
Presumably on any tour there are tensions between the actors, but Frayn increases the hostility with love affairs, jealousy, pretentiousness, alcohol and unreliability.
Parts of the first act are a little slow as the Nothing On company, with only two weeks' rehearsal behind them, try to get to grips with the illogicalities of the script and the difficulties of remembering if props should be taken off or left on set.
But the comedy levels shoot up in the second act, seen from backstage as the actors are at one another's throats. The show must go on - yet at this point no one's concerned about missed entrances and repeated lines. By the third act everything has descended into chaos, with the actors making up most of the script as they go along. It's outrageously, laugh-out-loud funny.
A strong cast of nine give sterling performances, none more so than Brigit Forsyth as Dotty Otley, the experienced actress who's sunk money into the show in the hope of being able to buy a comfortable home when she retires. Forsyth moves effortlessly from her refined offstage persona to Mrs Clackett, the common housekeeper with more sardines than John West.
Brian Protheroe is perfectly cast as Lloyd Dallas, the long-suffering director of Nothing On whose frustrations with the difficult rabble on stage are expressed in sarcasm, irony and occasional anger.
The rest of the cast give virtually faultless displays: Ian Lindsay as the veteran, hard-of-hearing drinker who always messes up his lines; Edward Baker-Duly as Frederick Fellowes who gets a nose bleed whenever he sees violence; Annette McLaughlin as his posh wife Belinda; Andrew Havill as Garry Lejeune, the estate agent who tries to carry on an amorous liaison with contact lens-losing Brooke, delightfully played way over the top by Djalenga Scott; Gerard Carey as Tim, the put-upon backstage gofer who's affectionately twee when he has to make onstage announcements; and Louise Shuttleworth as Poppy Norton-Taylor, the stage manager who eventually succumbs to her own personal problems after valiantly holding the show together for so long.
Ian Talbot, who ran the Open Air Theatre at Regent's Park for 20 years, doesn't do anything revolutionary or experimental with Noises Off - he simply gets the maximum amount of comedy from the play. And there's so much going on in act two that you'll want to see it again; you simply can't take it all in at one go.
"Noises Off" continues until June 5th
Reviewer: Steve Orme