Noises Off – Birmingham REP

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Writer: Michael Frayn

Director: Lindsay Posner

Nothing On is a classic Brian Rix-style farce with all of the usual elements: double entendres, mistaken identity, rapid-fire entrances and exits, young girls in their underwear and, of course, middle-aged men with their trousers around their ankles. And, bizarrely, sardines. It’s set in a house that is currently standing empty as a procession of characters tries to take advantage of that fact to rent it or use it for trysts, each set unaware of the others’ presence – and mayhem ensues. And if you think you’d quite like to watch Nothing On, then you can – or at least its first act – as the play-within-a-play in Michael Frayn’s Noises Off.

In Noises Off, we see the first act of Nothing On at three points in its lifetime. At first, we see the director, Lloyd Dallas (Simon Shepherd) trying to pull it all together for tomorrow’s opening. We meet the desperately under-rehearsed cast: Dotty Otley (Liza Goddard) is a television star playing the cheery housekeeper; the male lead is Garry Lejeune (Dan Fredenburgh); Frederick Fellowes (Simon Coates) plays the rather slow house owner while picking at plot holes or asking about his motivation, while Lucy Robinson brings us Belinda Blair, gossip and peacemaker. Inexperienced actress, Brooke, is hilariously played straight played by Lisa Ambalavanar, while old-timer-with-a-drink-problem, Selsdon Mowbray (Matthew Kelly), is an incongruous burglar. The cast is completed by the easily flustered stage manager Tim (Daniel Rainford) and ASM Poppy (Nikhita Lesler).

While Act One (of Noises Off) is a little wordy as we get to know the characters and their relationships (there’s at least one illicit romance as well as an ill-fated love triangle backstage), the pace soon picks up after the interval, where we encounter the cast in the middle of the run. For this section, we are backstage looking out and the pressures on the cast of working together day after day are beginning to tell. Of course, once the Nothing On performance commences, all is quiet backstage: there is a masterclass of tightly choreographed silent comedy and dumbshow for the audience to enjoy as the characters dig ever-deeper holes for themselves. The final act sees us visit Nothing On in its final week. We’re back out in front for this. Some cast members clearly don’t care anymore, leaving others to try to ad-lib their way through to some sort of ending. Ambalavanar’s Brooke gives a hilarious performance in this section as an actress who is determined to deliver her lines and hit her spots regardless of the chaos around her.

The real star of Noises Off is Michael Frayn’s script. It pokes loving fun at farce while being a quite superb example of the genre itself. It’s tightly written with gag after gag landing perfectly. This is brought together under the guiding hand of director Lindsay Posner and movement director Ruth Cooper-Brown, making the physical comedy work seamlessly. And of course, the cast, despite the increasing agitation of its alter-egos, delivers perfectly. Fredenburgh brings us some extremely fine physical comedy, especially in the final act, while Kelly’s attempts (as Mowbray) to drink pretty much anything with alcohol provide plenty of comedic moments as the rest of the Nothing On cast seek to prevent him.

It’s undemanding stuff – for the audience at any rate – but it is comedy at its very best. A first-rate script is supported by a first-rate cast at the top of its game for an evening of great fun.

Runs until 9 September 2023 and on tour

The Reviews Hub Score

Farcical Fun

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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