Michael Frayn’s 1982 play is rightly regarded as one of the greatest comedies ever written. Dealing with the attempts of a failing theatrical troupe to present a hoary old farce, ‘Nothing On’, under the tutelage of a past-it director, it combines verbal wit with a quite astonishing array of dramatic devices that illuminate the failure of the cast and crew to keep the show going. Frayn’s particular genius is to have three separate ‘Act Ones’, the first being a disastrous run-through at a dress rehearsal, the second being the action of the play observed from backstage, and the third being the incompetent presentation of it towards the end of its run.
If this sounds at all pretentious, then rest assured it isn’t in the staging. Lindsay Posner’s new production at the Old Vic provides comic bliss from start to finish, thanks to an incredibly well-drilled and very game cast, all of whom relish the opportunity to demonstrate split-second timing and remarkable comic poise. It is slightly invidious to single out particular actors from the uniformly strong company, but Celia Imrie’s grand dame thespian playing a comic housekeeper, Robert Glenister’s philandering director Lloyd Dallas, Karl Johnson’s elderly drunk and Jamie Glover’s petulant leading man are all particularly hilarious.
And, oh yes, it’s funny. Along with One Man, Two Guvnors, it’s the most uproariously hilarious night that I’ve had at the theatre this year. I’d seen it before about a decade ago with a starry cast including Lynn Redgrave and Stephen Mangan, but I don’t remember that production reducing me to the helpless paroxysm of mirth that this one did. By the end, the simplest of objects – a plate of sardines, a bag, a telephone receiver – have become so freighted with comic significance that their very appearance sends a roar of appreciative laughter through the audience.
Saying anything more detailed about the play is not only unfair, but verges on the incomprehensible for the uninitiated. All I can say is that this is a guaranteed hit, and yet another splendid addition to the run of excellent plays at the Old Vic. For this, Mr Spacey, many thanks.