Writer: Michael Frayn
Director: Blanche McIntyre
Reviewer: Laura Jayne Bateman
Noises Off is often hailed as the funniest play ever written. Starting life in 1977 as a one-act play called Exits, playwright Michael Frayn then developed the show into Noises Off in time for its London premiere in 1982. It has since been seen regularly in the West End and on Broadway, and Nottingham Playhouse’s revival is a feat of comic excellence.
Noises Off opens at one o’clock in the morning in the (fictional) Grand Theatre in Weston-Super-Mare. It is the tech/dress rehearsal of a lacklustre farce, Nothing On, and harried director, Lloyd Dallas (Orlando Wells), struggles to control his team of under-rehearsed actors who lose their props, miss their cues and forget their lines. Veteran actor Selsdon Mowbray (Robin Bowerman) falls asleep at the back of the stalls; diva Brooke Ashton (Sophia Nomvette) keeps losing her contact lenses; and supposed peacekeeper Belinda Blair (Becci Gemmell) can’t help but reveal secrets about the many cast romances. One month later and the show has toured to the (again fictional) Theatre Royal, Ashton-Under-Lyne. Couples break up, whiskey is passed from actor to actor and violence breaks out, all taking place backstage during the first act of a Wednesday matinee. On the final leg of the tour, at the (also fictional) Municipal Theatre in Stockton-On-Tees, the farce-within-a-farce descends into pure chaos, the plot is abandoned, and the actors must ad-lib the show to some form of conclusion.
The play is exceptionally funny, and one of its strengths is that the audience is as engaged in the farce-within-a-farce as it is with the backstage politics. The sheer ridiculousness of these backstage antics is made all the funnier by how comparable they are to real life. The play’s second act, which takes place almost entirely in mime as the actors attempt not to disturb the ‘onstage performance’, is comic genius and superbly choreographed here by director Blanche McIntyre. Unfortunately, the third act is the least funny, as it is pure silliness compared with the cleverness of the first two acts, but it is undoubtedly excellently-executed slapstick, to which credit must also be given to fight director Philip D’Orléans for safely navigating designer Robert Innes Hopkin’s magnificent set.
The nine-strong cast is collectively excellent and works together well as an ensemble. John Elkington as the perpetually bemused Frederick Fellowes is pleasingly pathetic, while Gemmell makes a soothingly practical Belinda. There is first-rate work from Brian Lonsdale as the sleep-deprived stage manager Tim Allgood and Wells as the tyrannical director. Patrick Osborne is superb as the love-struck Gary Lejeune who can never quite finish a sentence. Unfortunately, though not unexpectedly, most of the female characters’ storylines revolve around men, nevertheless there are strong turns from Ritu Arya as put-upon understudy Poppy Norton-Taylor, Carla Mendonça as actor/investor Dotty Otley, and Sophia Nomvette as the brassy Brooke. There is also lovely comic work from Bowerman as borderline-alcoholic Selsdon Mowbray.
The comedy of Noises Off has endured for over thirty years, and it is both a love letter to and a ridicule of the theatre industry. Superb comic timing ensures that every gag lands and director Blanche McIntyre effectively channels the energies of her talented company to make this Nottingham Playhouse productionan excellent evening out.
Runs until 30 April 2016 and on tour | Image:Robert Day