I was in London this week, and my originally booked return train on Thursday evening was cancelled due to a general strike in France (protesting Macron’s outrageous plans to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64). So I had an unexpected evening free in the Great Wen.
I had a browse of the last-minute tickets available for the West End. I have not been to many West End shows – the last was Hamilton, almost exactly five years ago – so it was about time to do it again. There’s actually a lot of good stuff there – I wonder if theatres are not yet back up to full capacity post-pandemic? I was tempted by Six, of which my brother is a big fan and it’s also conveniently between office and hotel; but then I spotted that Noises Off, by Michael Frayn, and starring Felicity Kendal, was actually opening that very evening; and decent tickets were available for a mere £20. Well, that was an easy decision.
It wasn’t the first night of the show – it has been touring for several months, starting in Bath (which of course is ironic because it’s about a touring play) – but it was the first night in the Phoenix Theatre on Charing Cross Road. Here’s a trailer.
In case you don’t know, it’s a play about a play, a farce about a farce; the actors and crew are performing a sex comedy while at the same time feuding with each other behind the scenes. It was first written in 1982 – this was a fortieth anniversary tour – and filmed in 1992; we’ll get to that.
I’ve been mildly obsessed with Felicity Kendal since The Good Life (which started when I was seven). She gets top billing as the veteran actress Dotty, who plays the housekeeper, Mrs Clackett; she is a sprightly 76 these days, and was a bit hoarse on Thursday night but still has what it takes, doing all the physical stuff with gusto but also not particularly hogging the limelight.
I thought that everyone was good, but that there were two standout performances. Tracy-Ann Oberman, who I know from her Doctor Who performance as the head of Torchwood who gets turned into a Cyberman, really shines as Belinda, the actress who plays Flavia, the female half of the older of the two couples in the play-within-the-play. It’s not necessarily scripted that way, but she magnetically attracts our attention as the grownup in the room trying to make sense of a crazy world.
And I had not previously seen Joseph Millson, as Garry, who plays Roger, the male half of the younger of the two couples. He has great physical presence, and in particular has a very impressive tumble down the stairs towards the end. He is 48; I don’t think I would have felt able to do that at half his age.
Given that it was the play’s first night in London, two lines in particular drew laughs, both spoken by Alexander Hanson as the director Lloyd Dallas, a role originally played by Paul Eddington:
Think of the first night as a dress rehearsal.
We all know you’ve worked in very classy places up in London where they let you make the play up as you go along, but we don’t want that kind of thing here, do we?
On the downside, I thought that the script does few favours to the two junior women characters, Brooke who plays Roger’s girlfriend Vicky (Sasha Frost here), and stage hand Poppy (Pepter Lunkuse, the one PoC on the stage). The humour of the play is a bit uncomfortable anyway, which is after all the point, but here it veers into having women characters who are funny because they are stupid, and shagging the men. The film version has a plot twist at the end about Vicky’s true mission, but if that was in the play, I missed it.
I am not complaining about the performers, who made the most of what they were given; and the staging and direction are all very tightly and credibly done. There are a couple of great sight gags with the theatre curtain itself.
The show finished just before 10, which gave me six hours of sleep before my 4.30 start for the 6.15 Eurostar on Friday morning. As I got back into my hotel, I chatted to the older couple who were sharing the lift with me, and it turned out that they too had been to the same play. We all agreed that Tracy-Ann Oberman was particularly impressive.
For an encore, F and I watched the 1992 film version last night. (Anne is away so we are experiencing a few days of bachelor life.) I had seen it years ago, but it was really interesting to watch it again with the stage show so fresh in my memory. Here’s a clip from the first act.
The dynamics of the film are completely different, even if the words are mostly the same. Michael Caine, the biggest star in the film, gets a whole framing narrative to himself. Denholm Elliot, who died of AIDS soon afterwards, is a more sympathetic Selsdon (the old alcoholic actor who plays the burglar) than was Matthew Kelly on stage, though there is a size thing here too, Kelly being much bigger physically than Elliott was.
To my surprise, Christopher Reeve seems rather miscast in the film as Frederick, who plays Philip, the male half of the older couple; Jonathan Coy, who I don’t think I had seen before in anything, seemed much more comfortable in the role on stage. And Julie Hagerty, who I generally think is great, is wasted as Poppy in the film. Reeve at 39 also seems a bit too young for his role, and Hagerty at 36 maybe a bit too old for hers; by contrast, Jonathan Coy is 68 and Pepter Lunkuse 32 (and playing it younger).
I was interested to note that the film script is a bit more risqué than the stage show; some of the humour has been toned down for 2023. Sorry, I can’t recall any specific examples, but I felt that the stage show had cut or softened some of the lines unnecessarily; though there is more use of the word “fucking”. Also, as noted above, Vicky in the film (played by Nicolette Sheridan) turns out to have a secret role which I don’t recall from the stage show, and which gives her character (though not Brooke’s) a bit more oomph.
And perhaps it was just my state of mind after a short night and a long journey, but I found the film less effective as comedy, in the second and third acts. I had expected that the camera following the various bits of slapstick closely would highlight them better for the viewer than is possible for a stage audience who have to pay attention to the whole tableau, but in fact I found myself losing track of the action. I admit that this may have just been my fatigue; F laughed his head off throughout.
Anyway, the show was well worth the twenty quid I paid for the ticket, and I think I must do this a bit more often.