Noises Off is 40 years old and it is amazing to think there are vast numbers of people who have never seen it, certainly judging by the gales of laughter it is already provoking in the Phoenix Theatre where Lindsay Posner’s production has transferred following a successful UK tour. It’s more than a decade since Posner’s last version in the West End, staged at the Old Vic in 2011, although it was revived at the Lyric Hammersmith and then the Garrick Theatre in 2019 by Jeremy Herrin. As a concept, Michael Frayn’s play has largely stood the test of time relatively well considering it was originally designed to mock the stale three Act drawing room farce of yesteryear, and while there are now far fewer of those to compare against, the comedic pitch of Noises Off continues to entertain while its reflections on life in a touring theatre company now perhaps contain its sharpest observations.
A well-timed comedy is the hardest kind of performance to manage successfully. It has to look absolutely effortless, as though misfortune is raining down on hapless characters trapped in a hell of their own making, while for the actors it is a genre that requires a high-level of technical finesse, precision timing and incredible stamina, especially when the story demands a combination of interlocking verbal jokes, visual and physical comedy. To create the rolling and building humour that sustains the energy of a show like this over a couple of hours is no mean feat and Noises Off is a hugely demanding piece for its nine-strong cast.
It is also the blueprint for everything that followed. For example, Stephen Moffat’s The Unfriend opened down the road at the Criterion Theatre last week, a glorious transfer from Chichester, that also ticks all of the farce boxes, a witty and sparkling sitcom on stage that combines a great character-based story, delicious one-liners, strong comedy performances and a sense of building chaos as the stakes get higher and higher across its two Act structure. Likewise, The Play That Goes Wrong (now back at the Duchess Theatre) involves a single performance coming apart at the seams which is the direct child of Noises Off and has served over a decade in the same place, covid interruptions notwithstanding. Among the musicals and serious dramas, feather-light but skillful comedies are few and far between so this is a rare opportunity for audiences to see how great a debt contemporary stage comedies owes to Noises Off by seeing them side-by-side.
With mini-farcical crescendos in each of the three Acts, Noises Off begins with the stuttering dress rehearsal of a farce called Nothing On about to open in Western-super-Mare. The cast still think they’re in technical rehearsal so timing and commitment are all a bit lackluster but it’s edging towards midnight on the day before opening night and their frazzled director Lloyd Dallas just wants to get through Act One. In the first two parts of the play, Frayn puts the audience in the position of secret observers, able to view the preparations, politics and troubled partnerships that will shape the remainder of this tour while giving the viewer all the information we will need to understand the events that follow.
First and foremost, Act One of Noises Off is a chance to familiarise ourselves with the slight plot of Nothing On, a silly story about a sardine-eating housekeeper, an Estate Agent and his girlfriend as well as the tax-exile owner of the house and his wife. It is a revolving door story involving characters just missing one another as they dash in and out of multiple exits in the belief they are alone in the house. The shape of this story and the exact position of the actors performing it at any given time are vital to understanding how badly the play-within-a-play deteriorates across its run. And while this initial amble through is frequently interrupted by the actors with questions for their beleaguered director, it gives the audience the base information to understand how what follows impacts on that plot.
But this first section is also a means to introduce the characters whose foibles and intertwined lives will so spectacularly sink this production. Frayn saves the impact of touring for later in the piece and in Act One creates a sense of optimism and, to an extent, support as the group pull together for the sake of the show. The inter-relationships that will derail future performances are the point, so we learn of Lloyd’s affairs with younger actor Brooke but also with Assistant Stage Manager Poppy who discover each other’s existence in this first segment, of the equivalent affair between the grande dame Dotty and her younger lover Garry with a jealous streak, and we meet the eternally unreliable alcoholic Selsden who cannot remember lines or cues and spends most of the play attempting to steal away with a bottle of whiskey.
In Posner’s new production at the Phoenix Theatre, there is a nicely controlled energy in this first part, a gentle introduction to plot and character that very slow builds its own rhythm. Frayn allows the audience to see vast swathes of Nothing On uninterrupted and Posner doesn’t create too much haste here, allowing the gentler comedy to slowly build and build as the actors real lives start to intrude and Lloyd’s exasperation grows. It is the longest scene in the play, a 50-minute opener that Posner controls well, taking the audience to a medium pitch just before the interval which allows the actors to conserve their energies for the faster-paced farce to come without making this feel in any way lackluster – a very finely balanced piece of directing that holds the audience back from expending too much of their own energy all at once.
Act Two is a completely different proposition in many ways. Already several weeks into a tour by this point and already some of the key relationships have blown up spectacularly and tensions are running high. The audience now sees Nothing On from backstage in Ashton-under-Lyne, a deeply chaotic performance in which the personal lives of the actors is the key focus and the play they are performing becomes a sketchy activity happening almost unseen in the background. And while the company initially retain a modicum of professionalism in trying to conceal their behind-the-scenes dramas from the unseen Ashton-under-Lyne audience, Frayn ups the stakes here considerably by setting this Act in a place the characters cannot speak to one another except in the dialogue of the play they are performing, in effect creating a farce akin to silent movie.
This is a masterful piece of writing that lives almost entirely in the stage directions and performances, driven by pure adrenaline. Much shorter than the First Act because Nothing On runs without interruption for about 30-minutes, this is the comic high point of Noises Off and the place where the work and the actors real lives crash up against one another as they silently fight, injure and vengefully meddle with one another all while trying to meet their cues. Like the play they are performing, this evolves into a revolving door comedy played on the same two levels in which the Noises Off actors are required to run up and down stairs, cross paths at exact moments in order to lift whiskey bottles or axes being brandished by their colleagues, and deal with tied shoe laces, lost props, bouquets given to the wrong women and missing colleagues all in a tightly timed fiasco.
Posner controls the appearance of chaos really well and in what is a complex and highly complicated sequence of events happening simultaneously, the audience will be unable to watch all of the incidents at the same time. Like a densely packed cartoon frame, activities overlap, there are plots, subplots and minor occurrences happening in isolation but also in chains of activity which the cast perform with a practiced ease that feels spontaneous and silly, showcasing the spectacular precision and tacit understanding they have developed together. Like Act One, this builds to the very edge of disaster and Posner’s cast expend the most physical energy in this section before the consequences of their personal and professional calamities plays out in the less actively demanding Act Three.
The final part of Noises Off is less frantic than Act Two but requires more seemingly incidental comedy as the play more clearly melds verbal and physical humour during the final disastrous performance of Nothing On at Stockton-on-Tees, placing the viewer in the position of the final performance audience watching the play straight through. But Frayn doesn’t directly repeat Act One and instead the comedy comes from the differences between the dress rehearsal and final night of this tour in which there are significant changes to the story we are by now familiar with. As the piece implodes it requires considerable adlibbing from the characters to cover up the endless mistakes that take the performance far off course.
It happens slowly at first, a spilt plate of sardines causing slide hazards, props appearing in the wrong places or not removed when they should be, and again Frayn gently develops a sense of the show slipping beyond the control of the actors most of whom no longer care, until their dialogue is out of sync while backstage and onstage story-lines have mixed. There is a blend of comedy style in here but Frayn draws the most laughs from the differing reaction of the cast to the breakdown of their show, from the ever-reliable Belinda stranded onstage, attempting to fudge the pandemonium and smoothly improvise her way out of disaster to the self-absorbed Brooke who refuses to acknowledge the problem and just delivers her lines regardless. Posner directs the changing tone well, less intense than Act Two but with a greater charge than Act One that clearly demonstrates the time lapse across the period of the play and the complete deterioration of the relationships that keep Noises Off alive.
And it is those interactions and the reflection on the consequences of close proximity for several months within a touring company that emerges most strongly in this production – the growing to hate one another over seemingly petty issues, the affairs that turn into much larger dramas, the deterioration of company morale after Press Night when the Director leaves to rehearse their next show leaving no adults in charge (not that Lloyd behaves any better than his team here), the clash of experienced professionals and young actors and the lagging energy as the tour unfolds that affects the cast and backstage crew in equal measure. And it is these personal dramas within the reflections on theatre itself that prove most enjoyable.
With its highly complex requirements, Noises Off is a true ensemble piece and this cast is working tightly together to keep the pace sprightly, exactly timing Frayn’s mix of verbal and visual humour. Tracy-Ann Oberman as the glamorous Belinda providing moral support to all, Felicity Kendall as the TV star turned dowdy housekeeper who provokes jealous rages in her younger lover Garry played by Joseph Millson who stalks the backstage area with murderous intent, Matthew Kelly as the sleepy Selsdon who’d rather be tucked up with a bottle than delivering his few lines, Jonathan Coy as Freddie whose sensitivity to violence causes inconvenient nosebleeds and Alexander Hanson as their amorous director Lloyd who cannot control the cast on either side of the curtain especially his lovers Sasha Frost as the single-minded Brooke and Pepter Lunkhuse as the sweetly overwhelmed Poppy. Everyone gets their moment while providing a finely calibrated comedy performance that never falters.
There are odd moments of Noises Off that certainly show their age, not least the now questionable presentation of a Sheikh which feels rather awkward in the twenty-first century while some of the sexual politics and Brooke running around in her underwear for much of the play is quite dated. Noises Off is a fast-paced show that still demands an enormously skilled and precise technical performance from every member of its cast and Posner’s team makes it look far easier than it really is. 40 years on, Frayn’s play has still got it.
Noises Off is at the Phoenix Theatre until 11 March with tickets from £25 plus booking fee. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog
Leave a Reply