Meera Syal: ‘Audiences love things going wrong on stage’

Actress Meera Syal stars as housekeeper Dotty Otley in Noises Off (Photo credit: Helen Maybanks)

by LAUREN CODLING

ACTRESS Meera Syal has revealed the “chaos” of backstage antics within the theatre world, as her latest play continues its successful run in London’s West End.

Syal stars as Dotty Otley in Noises Off, a high-energy, backstage comedy which unveils the behind-the-scenes goings on of a theatre show. The production recently transferred to the Garrick Theatre following a hugely successful extended run at the Lyric Hammersmith in the summer.

The play-within-a-play has been popular, with many commending the cast for their portrayal of a low-budget theatre troupe who attempt to cope as everything goes wrong around them.

The concept of Noises Off originated from playwright Michael Frayn’s experiences of watching his 1970 farce The Two of Us from the wings. He realised that the chaos behind the scenes was funnier than what was being played out on stage. Thus in 1982, Noises Off was born.

Meera (seated, third from right) with her Noises Off cast mates

So are backstage antics as hectic as the play leads audiences to believe?

“Chaos is normal, especially during previews or the first dress run,” Syal told Eastern Eye. “You don’t know how the costume changes will go, where the props are. You may not remember where you’ll be coming on and off. But the more that you run through, the less panicky it becomes.”

As Noises Off has been running since June, the cast and crew are familiar enough with the script to avoid utter disarray, she said. However, things could, and did, still go wrong at a moment’s notice.

During a recent performance at the Garrick, for instance, the phone prop flew off the stage and landed on an audience member’s lap. Despite the mistake, no one particularly seemed to care. According to Syal, these mishaps can even lead to further enjoyment for audiences.

“Audiences love it when things go wrong and I think that is why people love the play so much,” the comedian mused. “There is something joyful about people trying to cope when you can see that it is failing terribly.”

(L-R) Lisa McGrillis Lloyd Owen, Sarah Hadland and Meera are part of an amateur theatre trope in Noises Off

During the initial press night at the Lyric Hammersmith in July, the light board collapsed in the middle of the show. Luckily, most just assumed it was part of the script.

“If it is live, anything can go wrong and you can never quite relax,” Syal revealed.

Last month, the playwright Frayn attended the show. The 86-year-old even received a cheer from spectators as the cast took their final bows. Thankfully no obvious mistakes were made, but Frayn’s presence wasn’t as nerve-wracking for the cast, mostly because he had been heavily involved with the rehearsal process, Syal admitted.

“We’re used to him being around and he’s been incredibly supportive,” she explained. “It is always nerve-wracking on press night, but it was very nice to be able to let him take some of the glory because it is a brilliant script.”

Syal is no stranger to theatre – she has starred in numerous high-profile productions including last year’s successful Pinter at the Pinter season and her unforgettable turn as Miss Hannigan in the hit musical Annie. In one of her most notable performances, the actress starred in the one-woman show Shirley Valentine in 2010. She was applauded for her portrayal of the middle-aged, working-class Liverpudlian housewife.

The actress starred in the one-woman show Shirley Valentine in 2010

Although she called it one of the most “satisfying” roles she has ever had, Syal admitted she felt overwhelmed at the prospect of being alone on stage. On press night, the Goodness Gracious Me star recalled audience members taking their seats and realising that she had five minutes to go until the curtain rose.

“I thought, ‘there is a door to the car park close by, I could run away now, and no one would know where I was,’” she laughed. “I was that terrified.”

Despite her initial fear, performing solo created an “incredible, intimate connection” with the audience, which Syal referred to as a “humbling” experience. At the end of the play, she remembered seeing women with tears running down their faces.

“They were seeing some of their lives being played out on stage. They felt it,” Syal said.

Looking back at 2019, Syal said she was satisfied with her achievements in the past 12 months.

Meera and husband Sanjeev Bhaskar both starred in Richard Curtis’ Yesterday, released earlier this year

As well as Noises Off, she starred in Richard Curtis’ Yesterday. The film, featuring Himesh Patel as a struggling singer-songwriter who realises he is the only person on earth to remember The Beatles, made over $149.6 million (£116m) globally at the box office. Syal played Patel’s on-screen mother, alongside her real-life husband Sanjeev Bhaskar.

“I’ve been lucky. I had a lovely screen role and a theatre role and as an actor, that is your perfect year – that you get to do something on screen and on stage,” she said. “I hope that 2020 is as kind!”

Noises Off is at the Garrick Theatre London until January 4