CentralComedyDramaReview

Noises Off – Oxford Playhouse

Reviewer: Peter Kessler

Writer: Michael Frayn

Director: Lindsay Posner

Playwright Michael Frayn himself talks with some bemusement about the enduring popularity of his farce-within-a-farce Noises Off. Despite having authored such classics as Copenhagen and Benefactors, it is this piece of theatrical insanity that keeps him a wealthy man. First staged in 1982, it is always being performed somewhere (normally Germany), and the royalties keep rolling in. According to Frayn, it is his Mousetrap.

But, like The Mousetrap, is it beginning to show its age? After all, the West End into which Noises Off was thrust 42 years ago was replete with the sort of plays it pokes fun at. Ray Cooney farces were packing in the punters, and every other cupboard concealed a semi-naked young woman in fishnet stockings. Theatre has moved on, hasn’t it? Does Noises Off still make its voice heard?

The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is a resounding ‘Yes’.

Noises Off is a deceptively simple idea. It is the first act of an awful farce called Nothing On, and that first act is performed three times. First, we see the last rehearsal before opening night, full of arguments with the director, forgotten lines and nascent personality clashes. Next, we see it halfway through its tour, but this time we are backstage, witnessing the battles, confusion and recriminations that are barely concealed from the paying audience. Finally, we see it on its last night in Stockton-on-Tees, by which stage it is an unrecognizable wreck.

Director Lindsay Posner recognises that this intricately woven, wonderfully physical, Escher-like puzzle of a play is a period piece, and that is how it is presented. Up on the stage, it’s still 1982. The costumes, the wigs, and even the acting styles are redolent of an earlier age, and this releases the actors from any need to make the material acceptable to a modern audience. Tropes like directors sleeping with multiple members of the cast, old alcoholic luvvies dropping their trousers, and people getting cast because they are “someone’s girlfriend” litter the text. They may still be happening in the world of theatre, but nowadays playwrights are less likely to see them as sources of comedy. This production embraces those outdated ideas with infectious joy. The performances are exaggerated to a finely calibrated degree, dipping their toes in the shallows of pantomime. As a result, it never feels like a commentary on real life, but a hilarious rendition of how things used to be.

The cast manages to be larger-than-life without ever overacting. As the Director Lloyd Dallas, Simon Shepherd is both cynical and witty, like the distilled essence of Paul Eddington. Liza Goddard is every inch the 1970s sitcom star that she was: a maestro of comic timing. Simon Coates’ nose-bleeds and polite-but-pointless worries about his character’s motivation make for some of the show’s stand-out set-pieces. There isn’t a weak link, but perhaps the outstanding performance comes from Dan Fredenburgh as the spluttering estate-agent-cum-philanderer Garry Lejeune. Fredenburgh’s physical comedy is simply off the scale. Whether determinedly banging his head against a wall in despair, hopping from one entrance to another with his shoelaces tied together, or staring in disbelief at a plate of sardines that shouldn’t be there, he is mesmerizingly funny. At one point he falls downstairs, and his entire body seems to ripple over the risers, like something out of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon.

And on the subject of physical comedy, the second act of Noises Off still stands as a remarkable, 25-minute, non-stop coup de théâtre. Choreographed with pace, precision and panache, it is breathtaking to watch, and only as it ends do you realise that your face is stuck in a rictus of laughter and astonishment.

Of course, Noises Off is not the only comedy “play that goes wrong” in the repertoire. It was the first, and it has inspired an entire sub-genre of theatre. But if it were only about a play going wrong then it would have neither the humour nor the longevity it has enjoyed. What the audience sees in it is an all-too-recognisable desperation to get the job done; to make something work; to hold it together against the odds. It is like the stages of a doomed relationship, starting in awkward embarrassment about what to say and when, descending into fighting, anger and recrimination, and ending in resigned, blank-faced despair – all while desperately maintaining a veneer that everything is fine.

Perhaps that is the secret of its eternal popularity: it’s the British way of life writ into farce.

Runs until 24 February 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

Outrageous, outstanding, and, astonishingly, not outdated

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The Reviews Hub - Central

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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