Trays of sardines. I counted at least four of them, and not a biscuit to sop up the oily stuff. Gentlemen’s trousers around their ankles by the score. Three separate actors playing the burglar because at different times the real one goes missing. (Thank you, Steven Tandy, for lighting up my life.) A multiplicity of doors, with the wrong people going in and out of them. Misplaced telephones, mistaken identity, more bottles of wine than I cared to count. Soubrettes in sexy white underwear. Lots of nudge nudge, wink wink, but no sex and no nudity. It has all the ingredients of farce, and Michael Frayne is the master of the genre, because in this classic play he has added another dimension, a play within a play.
It’s a touring repertory group, who are putting on a play called Nothing On, and by the time we meet them they are at the end of the run, bored witless, having forgotten most of their lines and all of their cues, with all the worries of their everyday life coming back to haunt them.
I’m not going to begin to explain the ins-and-outs, because you’ve probably heard/seen it before, but like me you may not recognise it, because it’s had so many rewrites over its 40 year life time that, for me at least, it was like seeing a new play.
All’s well that ends well? Well, that depends. Does true love find a way? Not exactly. Do the contents of the bottles of wine end up down the correct gullets? What a silly question. By this stage you’ve probably lost the plot as completely as the (fake) cast has.
This could so easily be a complete mess and dissolve into chaos, and the fact that it doesn’t is thanks to an inspired director (Sam Strong) who can keep control of a plot as complex as an old lady’s tatting, and a cast who have the complexity of their moves firmly in hand. This is not a play that amateurs should attempt, because it requires precision, self-control and absolute discipline, and only the best actors have such skills. Which actor/role is your favourite is up to you – when I say I love Steven Tandy as the self-righteous burglar (surely an echo of Alfred Doolittle in My Fair Lady) it’s because he can bumble without being idiotic, but others may love Louise Siversen as a posh West End actor with the perfect name of Dotty Otley pretending to be the housekeeper Mrs Clackett, who switches from mock-Cockney to pseudo-posh with never a slip of cup or lip.
But then there’s Simon Burke as the suave director of the second-layer play, who is done with this lot now and going on to direct another production of Richard III, of whom we see a brief glimpse, and whom I suspect real director Sam Strong has slipped in for his own entertainment.
Richard Roberts’ astonishing stage set, which swings around after the first act to the chaos of back stage gives an accurate view, for those who’ve never seen the nuts and bolts of set construction, of the artificially of the process, and from a technical point of view is very educational.
The program notes are as confusing as the play, and will give you no help at all, although you must read the condensed essay Eros Untrousered and decide whether it too is a spoof, because it’s equally hilarious.
All I can do is urge you to see it for pure complex fun, to admire a brilliant cast of actors at their best, a director who has his hand firmly on this wobbly rudder, and a set beyond the dreams of any NIDA student.