Hilarious hit show right on the edge of good taste

In a theatre in Manchester the celebrities are out in force to see the start of a regional tour of what is simply one of the greatest – and it would be very easy to make an argument for calling it simply The Greatest –musical comedies ever made.

Ross Noble as Franz Liebkind in Mel Brooks comedy The Producers which comes to Leeds Grand Theatre next week.
Ross Noble as Franz Liebkind in Mel Brooks comedy The Producers which comes to Leeds Grand Theatre next week.

The Producers brought them all out, comedians, soap stars, even Noddy Holder was floating about the VIP bar. I reckon that would tickle Mel Brooks no end. The indefatigable funny man, who is one of the greatest creators of comedy of the last century, would have been slapping his knees at the idea of the perma-tanned and elegantly coiffed drinking cheap champagne and watching his ultimately subversive musical, while possibly missing the irony of what they were watching.

The Producers is, in certain moments – and I use the phrase deliberately – a work of genius. When Brooks, who is Jewish, wrote a script that commandeered goose-stepping Nazis in a musical number, even he must have been a little chuffed at the sheer audacity he was displaying. Ross Noble agrees: “Every night between my exit and Springtime for Hitler, there’s quite a long gap so I could very easily go to my dressing room and put my feet up, but every night I sit in the wings and watch. I even sing along. It’s just so brilliant.”

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Noble is best known as the long-haired Geordie comedian whose mainly improvised stand-up comedy shows have been delighting audiences for over 20 years. If you have seen his shows, in which literally anything can set him off on a weird fantastical flight of fantasy, you might think he is possibly the last person that would ever be cast in a play which required him to, well, learn a script. That is exactly what has happened, however, and Leeds audiences will get to see him play the unhinged character of Franz Liebkind.

“I get to go on stage and say lines written by Mel Brooks and that is just an absolute joy,” says Noble. “Every single line in the show has been perfectly crafted, by a master craftsman. If you’re going to do someone else’s work, you want to be doing the master’s, so it was a bit of a no-brainer for me.”

Adapted by Brooks from his movie of the same name in 2001, The Producers tells the story of New York producer Max Bialystock. Impoverished by a string of flops, he recruits downtrodden accountant Leo Bloom to help him pull off Broadway’s greatest scam.

Noble explains: “Bialystock realises you can make money with a flop more than a hit. If you over fund a show and it closes after one night you get to keep all the money.”

It’s a brilliant scheme. Together Bialystock and Bloom, although one is very much leading the charge, decide to try and produce the worst show ever, see it close and run away to Rio with the millions left over.

“They have to guarantee the show will be a flop, so they set out to find the worst play ever written, which is where my character comes in,” says Noble. “He’s a Nazi now living in New York with his pigeons and he’s written a play called Springtime for Hitler, a gay romp about the life of Adolf Hitler.” The original stage version of The Producers opened on Broadway starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, ran for 2,502 performances and won a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards. When you consider it – this is a play about the hunt for the Worst Play Ever, and which goes on to then show us that play – the achievement and the meticulous ironic framing is why I use the word genius. It’s also why improv master Noble is willing to stick to the script. Which isn’t to say he’s not sometimes tempted to veer away. “I very nearly did last night when someone, for some inexplicable reason, had a crying baby in the audience. I very nearly dealt with the baby in character (that is to say, dressed as a Nazi) but even I thought pulling a gun on a crying baby while dressed as a Nazi, that’s never a good idea. Spoils a night out pretty quickly.”

In Manchester I saw Phill Jupitus play Franz Liebkind, but you can see why Noble will be perfect. The main cast features Jason Manford giving a performance that will surprise many as Leo Bloom and an astoundingly energetic and stage-owning Cory English as Max Bialystock.

Noble says: “I saw the show when they first did it in the West End and I thought ‘this is the funniest show I have ever seen’ and it pushes the boundary further than you ever thought possible. Performers are literally goose-stepping around the stage and then you see the banners drop with the big insignia on them. It happens and you can literally hear the audience gasping. Even we look at it and think ‘really?’.”

The answer is, yes, really. It really is something.