Neil Dowden in the West End
29 January 2023
Michael Frayn’s perennially popular 1982 meta-comedy Noises Off deconstructs farce while also celebrating it. The play-within-a play structure is brilliantly put together with precision-tool craftmanship, but it’s not just a technical exercise it’s genuinely funny. There are a few signs that betray its age, but essentially the purity of its concept means that Noises Off has a timeless quality that keeps the humour fresh.
Joseph Millson, Alexander Hanson, Hubert Burton and Sasha Frost.
Photo credit: Nobby Clark.
We follow a mediocre theatre company staging a dreadful farce called Nothing On, as things go from bad to worse during the course of its provincial tour. In Act One, the final dress rehearsal pushes midnight (with the show due to open the following day in Weston-super-Mare) as the cast struggle with fluffed lines, missed cues, mislaid props (especially sardines), and doors that don’t open or close, while the director and stagehands frantically try to put things right. At this stage, there is hope that the technical problems can be fixed, with the group mutually supportive – though there are signs of trouble to come.
By Act Two – midway through the tour at a matinee in Ashton-under-Lyne – growing tensions backstage within the ensemble threaten to sabotage the show on stage. TV comedy star (and the show’s producer) Dotty Otley has fallen out with her toyboy lover and the romantic lead Garry Lejeune, who has been thrown into a jealous rage by her going back to the digs of the struggling ageing pro Frederick Fellowes, towards whom his on-stage partner Belinda Blair is also solicitous. Meanwhile, director Lloyd Dallas’s double fling with actress Brooke Ashton and assistant stage manager Poppy Norton-Taylor comes dramatically unstuck as his duplicity is revealed to both. And with alcoholic veteran Selsdon Mowbray arriving late sozzled, company manager and general dogsbody Tim Allgood runs around plugging the gaps.
The last act takes places in a theatre in Stockton-on-Tees near the end of the tour, where this time we see Nothing On performed on stage as the imaginary audience would do. It’s a complete shambles as things fall apart so badly that the cast, who are at the end of their tether, are forced to ad-lib as they desperately scramble to the finish line – finally bringing the house down.
Felicity Kendal, Jonathan Coy and Joseph Millson.
Photo credit: Nobby Clark.
It’s a remarkable achievement that Frayn manages to present the same material from Nothing On three times without it becoming overly repetitive due to the ingeniously different ways it is shown. The longest, first act in the rehearsal nicely sets up the dynamics between the fictional actors as they go in and out of character in a show that will become ever-more farcical in unintended ways. The second act is a tour de force of intricate prop-handling and physical comic timing as we see the shenanigans backstage – neatly dovetailed with the entrances and exits of the unseen action front stage – in dumb show since the company cannot speak, resulting in brilliantly sustained silent slapstick. And in the chaotic Act Three there is not much left of the script as written so it is just a matter of survival.
The kind of farce that Frayn is mercilessly parodying in Nothing On – crudely generic sex comedies stuffed with double entendres and failed fornication, as well as the usual devices of scantily clad women, men with dropped trousers, hiding in cupboards, and slamming doors – was still popular in the Eighties, but has thankfully faded now, so this doesn’t have the same pertinence though it still amuses. And with so many sexual abuses of power in showbiz recently uncovered, a director sleeping with two women in his company now seems even more iffy. But with touring theatre companies dwindling there is an increased sense of pathos in the valiant but vain efforts of the ensemble to keep the show on the road. There is a real warmth here towards theatre folk and the precarious world they inhabit.
Director Lindsay Posner (who also helmed the revival of Noises Off at the Old Vic in 2011) paces proceedings beautifully, hitting the comic business on the nose but allowing the play to breathe so that we care about the characters. Designer Simon Higlett’s beautifully detailed, two-tier, timbered country-house set (inverted in the middle act) is not spared in the devastating finale.
The starry cast is fully committed. As Dotty, Felicity Kendal plays her housekeeper character with just the right amount of stilted eccentricity, though there is little sense of an intimate relationship with the much younger Garry, played with hilarious inarticulacy and impressive athleticism (including jumping up the staircase with his shoes tied together and later falling down it) by Joseph Millson. Jonathan Coy (revisiting the role he played in the Old Vic production) also amuses as the accident-prone Frederick who questions his character’s motivation in between nosebleeds, while Tracy-Ann Oberman’s Belinda mixes sympathy with gossip as well as some entertaining improvisation.
Alexander Hanson is the increasingly exasperated, self-regarding Lloyd (keen to get on to his next show Macbeth – asking for trouble!) who is two-timing with Sasha Frost’s contact-lens- dropping Brooke and Pepter Lunkuse’s much put-upon Poppy. Matthew Kelly is a hoot as the whisky-quaffing, hard-of-hearing Selsdon. And Hubert Burton plays the eager-to-please, firefighting Tim who has to go in front of the curtain to apologize to the audience for the delay in starting the show amidst cacophonous noises off.