Travels: London: Friday 29th September 2000

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Seeing Michael Frayn's stunningly funny Noises Off

Main purpose: the start of a long weekend in London

For my first proper holiday since April 1980 I got to Cambridge station at 16:00 and had the usual weekday struggle to find a cycle parking space, in the end taking over a space as it was vacated. Having bought my tickets last Saturday I avoided the long queue and went straight to platform 3. The last time the train was already there - this time there was a signals failure and no train yet. A big crowd built up and time dragged. Suddenly there was an annoucement for a platform change to 2 and we all rushed there, arriving just in time to board. What was the point of the change? There's no noticeable difference between the platforms. The train left 17 minutes late. On journeys like this I go First Class as it's so much more relaxing and hassle-free. On WAGN trains this means riding in the small compartment at the front or rear of the train, next to the driver compartment. In fact I had the compartment to myself and on the return journey.

From Kings Cross I took a taxi to the Strand Palace Hotel. This seemed a much slower journey than the last time - the traffic was heavier. The fare was around 6.60. I bought a copy of the Evening Standard at KX, partly to read on the taxi ride and partly as it seems to be the best way of getting a clear listing of what's on at all central London cinemas for a specific week (Friday - Thursday). There don't seem to be any such Web sites.

Having checking in and freshened up, I left the hotel at 19:00 and walked across Waterloo Bridge, arriving at the Royal National Theatre - Lyttelton twelve minutes later.
The view at dusk around the Thames is spectacular, with many sights lit up, and in the warm weather many people were about. A jazz band were just packing up in the theatre foyer - some of the players looked familiar from the early 1990s in Cambridge. I'd bought my ticket a couple of weeks before via the NT's ticket hotline.

Noises Off

The programme cost 2.50, which was surprisingly reasonable especially since it included a separate (and hilarious) programme for the play being performed as part of the story. The performance lasted from about 19:40 to 22:00 with a break of about 20:35 - 20:55.

The play is about a repertory troupe performing the play Nothing On in obscure provincial theatres and the friction between them.

Most of the cast are familiar TV faces: Patricia Hodge, Peter Egan, Susie Blake, Jeff Rawle (the Editor in Drop The Dead Donkey, playing a similar role here), Aden Gillett (not a name I recognised but a familiar face) and the wonderful Christopher Benjamin.
[The following weekend I was watching the new DVD release of The Prisoner and there Christopher Benjamin was - first as No. 2's assistant in the first couple of episodes and then in The Girl Who Was Death playing Potter, a colleague of No. 6, a reprise of the role in Danger Man. ]

Act One is the final rehearsal of Nothing On's Act One before the first performance, in Weston-super-Mare. The cast and the tensions are introduced.

Nothing On is a standard farce about a country retreat of a couple (Susie Blake & Jeff Rawle) in tax exile in Spain. The housekeeper (Patricia Hodge) is finishing for the day as the estate agent (Aden Gillett) arrives with a girlfriend for a naughty afternoon, expecting an empty house. Then the owners appear, having sneaked back to their empty house for a few days. Of course the girlfriend turns out to be a tax inspector but the plot we see never gets that far. One of the many running gags involves the movement of plates of sardines.

Christopher Benjamin plays the drunken old thespian Snelsdon Mowbray, whose main moment is to close Act One by entering through a window as a burglar, expecting an empty house.

Peter Egan plays the harassed director.

After the interval, the set is rotated 180deg. and Act One (sic) is the backstage view of a performance in Aston-under-Lyne. By now the rot has set in. There are frantic goings-on, trying to preserve the right appearance for the audience on the far side of the set, in spite of sabotage by aggrieved cast members. The trade-mark frenetic Frayn overlapping farcial activity is a delight. Patricia Hodge's character generally tries to keep things going but can't resist the occasional act of vengeance.

After a brief break, rotating the set again, Act One features a performance at the last stop, in Stockton-on-Tees. By now there's no hope and much-put-upon Jeff Rawle has a terrible time. Glorious chaos! It's stunning how complex Frayn makes the action, with many things going on at once.

According to the programme, the play officially starts at the NT Lyttelton on 5th October (so this was a preview?) and goes on tour from 26th Feb.
[If I remember right, Michael Frayn has just started a play in a two-stage theatre in which the cast have to rush between stages perfoming two plays at once, all carefully timed.]


Whilst inside I'd missed some heavy rain but it was still warm and drying rapidly. I retraced my steps but this time went to the Savoy Theatre, hoping to find out when the Saturday matinee of The Mikado finished (info needed for future trip) but the theatre was closed. As I was tired and it was fairly late on a Friday night, I just went back to the hotel and tried the only one of their three restaurants still open - Johnson's. The cuisine was typically English-thinking-French and came to 21.45 for a lamb main course, a steamed banana-based pud and half-bot of red wine. The waitress took 20 minutes plus prompting to bring me the menu to choose a sweet and even then brought the bill instead. After my pud it took a while to get the bill, whicn included a "suggested" service charge, which I ignored.

My room had what seem to be the usual fittings of modern hotel rooms - multi-functional TV (displaying a greeting by name upon first entry), trouser press, hair dryer - but the bath taps caused some puzzlement. It turned out that the cold tap had no label and the hot tap label was loose and actually on the cold tap, giving the illusion of there being no hot water. One common facility was lacking: a means of hanging wet clothes to dry - often in the form of a retractable line over the bath. The lighting in the bedroom and the bathroom was dim - seemingly 100W or less. However all-in-all the room was fine.

The hotel's location on the Strand is ideal for Covent Garden, Theatreland, the South Bank and for visiting London generally. Charing Cross, Embankment and Temple (closed on Sundays) are the nearby Tube stations.

The Strand Palace is still branded as a Forte Hotel though it's now part of the Granada Compass group, which is planning to sell many of its hotels, including the Forte ones.

My single room's basic price was 159, which is extortionate, but I was on a weekend break package at 69/night. I found the deal via London HotelGuide and booked via the group's Web site.

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