Noises Off: the perfect, subtly infernal foil for the winter blues

Felicity Kendal, Alexander Hanson and Tracy-Ann Oberman in Noises Off, ar the Phoenix Theatre - Nobby Clark
Felicity Kendal, Alexander Hanson and Tracy-Ann Oberman in Noises Off, ar the Phoenix Theatre - Nobby Clark

Thank heavens for Michael Frayn and his restoratively silly play Noises Off, which helps combat the winter blues with its Saharan-strength warmth and battles the doom and gloom of our age with a kind of inverted logic: yes, we’re in a mess but at least we lead the world in organised theatrical chaos.

It was 40 years last spring since Frayn’s meta-farce – in which a sex comedy goes wrong, thrice: in rehearsal, back-stage and in performance – hit the West End. There it ran a decade-defining five years, uniting audiences in mirthful admiration at its construction.

The laugh-o-meter isn’t pushed to breaking-point these days – we’re more restrained, and the mocking of such a hoary genre matters less. But the long-running author (90 this autumn) must still have been gratified at the London opening night for Lindsay Posner’s anniversary revival by the rounds of titters, guffaws, and belly-laughs – indulgent affection and nostalgia only partially feeding that.

At the centre of the trouser-dropping, door-slamming mayhem is national treasure Felicity Kendal, 76 and looking, from row J, 20 years younger. She proves adorably on song as the faded and jealous TV actress Dotty who lives up to her name with every fluffed line and bungled action, continually misplacing the “plate of sardines”, the item integral to the plot of Nothing On, the sex-farce she and her benighted fellow thesps are bringing to the provinces.

La Kendal wins particular admiration for the way, as Dotty, she seems simultaneously pensive, focused and staringly absent – and dodders splendidly, complete with wayward accent, as the Mrs Clackett, housekeeper of the play within the play. This is a superior revival to the one seen in 2019, with a sense – spurred by the pandemic? – of top-rank stage-actors relishing the deranging peculiarity of their profession. Alexander Hanson nails the preening, coercive chumminess of the bed-hopping director, Jonathan Coy is a hoot as the old-timer craving character motivations where there are none, and Tracy-Ann Oberman (alas departing the cast soon) musters a lovely – nay luvvyish – air of conspiratorial intrigue with every weary shrug.

Act II’s backstage shenanigans, involving contrived miming and frantic timing, are highly effortful. But everything builds nicely to a demented climax, in which Joseph Millson’s hilarious, show-stealing and scenery-bashing leading actor, Garry, tumbles right down the stairs. He’s in freefall in every way; nothing makes any sense, yet he’s doomed to keep going like a pro. It has a curiously infernal quality, all told, like a fiendish episode of Black Mirror. A tonic, to choke on.

Until March 11;