First performed in 1982, Michael Frayn's play has been described as possibly the 'cleverest farce of the 20th century', and it certainly still provides rich and compelling humour based on some of the hallmark attributes of the genre: misunderstandings, improbable situations, characters who oddly avoid meeting, mistaken identity and the like.
Initially, we are duped into believing that we are witnessing the start of a 'real' play, when in fact we are watching the technical rehearsal of a show which is massively under-rehearsed and as a result is putting considerable pressure on the actors and technicians, and driving the director to distraction. To be precise, 'Noises Off' is a play about a play, which may sound a touch on the confusing side – but is more comprehensible in reality than you might imagine.
The 'play' in question is entitled 'Nothing On' and is scheduled for a tour of provincial theatres. Apart from being under-rehearsed, the show is blighted with a cast that includes Frederick Fellowes, a hopelessly self-deprecating actor who faints at the sight or even the mere thought of blood and needs motivation for everything he does, an ageing actor called Selsdon Mowbray who is more than a little deaf and frequently disappears to have a tipple of Scotch, and actress Dotty Otley who struggles to remember her lines whilst simultaneously managing business with sardines, newspapers and the telephone. The Stage Manager is Tim Allgood who has not slept for more than 48 hours, and the director, Lloyd Dallas, is having affairs with both Brooke Ashton who is playing Vicki and with Poppy, the overworked Assistant Stage Manager.
By the second act of 'Noises Off' the company of 'Nothing On' are a month into their tour and we now view proceedings from backstage. Tensions between the actors have developed since the rehearsal and are bubbling over into behind-the-scenes encounters while the play is being performed in the background. Much of the second act is conducted in mime as the actors 'backstage' are not able to speak while the play is being performed. In the final act, the tour has degenerated even further to the point that the actors no longer make any pretence of keeping to the script and merely struggle through in the best way they can.
Lindsay Posner's excellent, often hilarious revival meets all the requirements of the genre whilst avoiding potential excesses. And the cast are all in commendable form, especially Robert Glenister as the sarcastic director Lloyd Dallas, Celia Imrie as the forgetful Dotty Otley, and Karl Johnson as the ageing alcoholic, Selsdon.
Michael Frayn's concept is certainly clever and appealing because it inventively applies the basics of farce to the theatrical setting of a touring company, and adds a further layer of intricacy in terms of the relationships between the 'actors'. But the final, chaotic act is less satisfying than the earlier two. Though it might be the logical and most appropriate conclusion to the plot, it is not as funny as the foregoing acts partly because the cast of 'Noises Off' seem rather pathetic as they lose the battle to control either their emotions or the daily grind of presenting a play which they no longer seem able to care about.
"In these dark, anxious times, Noises Off offers an infallible escape into happiness."
Charles Spencer for The Telegraph
"With this and One Man, Two Guvnors running simultaneously, London boasts two of the funniest plays you could ever hope to see."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"The production does justice to the writing's technical intricacy. It is entertaining and painful - a summation of all that farce can do."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"Director Lindsay Posner choreographs his cast so beautifully." Ian Shuttleworth for The Financial Times