the perfect and subtly infernal foil for the winter blues

Felicity Kendal, Alexander Hanson and Tracy-Ann Oberman in Noises Off, at the Phoenix Theater – Nobby Clark

Thank goodness for Michael Frayn and his silly, restorative play Noises Off, which helps beat the winter blues with its Saharan heat and fights the misfortune and gloom of our times with a sort of reverse logic: yes, we we’re in trouble, but at least we’re leading the world into organized theatrical chaos.

It was 40 years ago last spring that Frayn’s meta-farce – in which a sex comedy goes wrong, three times: in rehearsal, backstage and in performance – hit the West End. He ran five decade-defining years there, uniting audiences in joyful admiration for his construction.

The laugh-o-meter isn’t pushed to the breaking point these days – we’re more restrained, and the mockery of such an old genre counts less. But the longtime author (turning 90 this fall) must have been graced on the opening night in London of Lindsay Posner’s birthday revival with the rounds of snickers, laughs and belly laughs – indulgent affection and longing only partially fuel this.

At the center of the pants-dropping, door-slamming chaos is National Treasure Felicity Kendal, 76, and staring, from Row J, 20 years younger. She reveals herself adorably on the song as the faded and jealous television actress Dotty who lives up to her name with every fluffy line and failed action, continually misplacing the “sardine dish”, the element that is an integral part of the intrigue of Nothing On, the sexual farce she and her obscure companions bring to the provinces.

The Kendal earns particular admiration for the way that, as Dotty, she seems pensive, focused and absent-minded at the same time – and goofs off beautifully, with a capricious accent, as Mrs. Clackett, housekeeper of the room in the room. This is a revival greater than that seen in 2019, with a sense – boosted by the pandemic? – leading theater actors savoring the disconcerting singularity of their profession. Alexander Hanson nails the smoothing, coercive friendship of the bed-hopping director, Jonathan Coy is a hoot as the former craves character motivations where there are none, and Tracy-Ann Oberman (alas leaving soon the cast) pulls together a nice – not luvvyish – air of conspiratorial intrigue with every weary shrug.

The behind-the-scenes shenanigans of Act II, involving contrived mime and frenetic timing, take a lot of effort. But all goes well until a demented climax, in which the hilarious, show-stealing, Joseph Millson-denigrating lead actor Garry tumbles down the stairs. It is in free fall in every direction; nothing makes sense, yet he is doomed to carry on like a pro. It has a curiously hellish quality, all things considered, like a diabolical episode of Black Mirror. A tonic, to choke.

Until March 11;

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