Micheal Frayn's farce about a farce premiered at this venue in 1982, but British theatre has travelled so far, notably in the last decade (and in no small way thanks to Sean Holmes, who ran the Lyric for the past 10 years before upping sticks to Shakespeare's Globe), that it seems positively retrograde to be staging it here now. The Lyric hasn't staged a three-act, middle-class comedy about middle-class white people for I don't know how long. Does that matter? Of course not. Does it mean Jeremy Herrin's revival needs to be extra specially good? Possibly it does.
The premise, of course, is pure poetry. A far-from-talented repertory company is putting on a terrible bedroom farce involving much slamming of doors and shedding of clothing called Nothing On. Rehearsals are going so badly that the technical stretches into the following morning. During the actual run, relationships within the cast, drunk on a toxic cocktail of raging egoism and mutual loathing, fall so catastrophically apart that there is more bedlam backstage than there is out front. Come the final performance, logic and reason have disintegrated to such an extent that the only raft left to cling to is the imperative of somehow, any how, getting to the last line of the script. This despite dropped cues, botched lines, missing props cues and at one point, three people entering dressed as the same character.
The genius of Frayn's idea is that theatre itself becomes a metaphor for meaning at its most abstract: The only thing keeping total chaos at bay is the convention of putting on a play, however abused those conventions end up becoming. The play itself, with its mind-bending quantity of entrances and exits, requires Herculean efforts from its cast, and Frayn himself has described as barmy any director wanting to put it on. But put it on directors do, such as Lindsay Posner, who broke Old Vic box office records with his practically perfect 2011 revival, while Herrin directed a different production on Broadway in 2016.
Herrin marshals a more than decent cast for this new show, including Meera Syal as the hapless Dotty, who hopefully asks during the final rehearsal whether she might be getting at least some of the words right, and Daniel Rigby as the lead actor Garry, whose off-stage romantic entanglement with Dotty is one factor in the cast's collective nervous breakdown. The imperious director is played with supercilious vigour by Lloyd Owen, whose simultaneous dalliance with Lois Chimimba's long-suffering stage manager and Amy Morgan's ditzy, teflon-plated leading lady adds to the tension. There was additional help on press night in the unlikely form of a technical hitch, which brought the lights down for 10 minutes in the second act, and a disruption so in keeping with the meta spirit of the play that some audience members believed it to be part of the script.
But for all the purring machinery of Frayn's ingenious construction, Noises Off relies to some extent on comedy conventions that are starting to show their age. There's the character of the Sheik in Nothing On, relatively harmless, yes, but still a piece of crude cultural stereotyping. The running sardine gag prompts several groans too many. The sexual politics belong to a different era. More than that, farce relies on a vertiginous sense that the very existence of its beleaguered characters is somehow at stake. Yet Herrin never articulates the seismic moments in the respective lives of the actors in ways that prompt us to care about them. This is a shame, since his cast works hard – and Rigby in particular is sheer delight, you can almost see his brain melting in the final act. But the point – possibly the only point – of Noises Off is to induce in you a state of utterly helpless laughter, and this production never manages that.