'Noises Off' review – Michael Frayn's enduring backstage farce is simply sublime comedy

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

Putting on Michael Frayn’s peerless Noises Off – the backstage comedy guaranteed to make me cry with laughter, every time – does seem to tempt fate. And, sure enough, on opening night of this latest West End run, the theatre gods added a few more “circumstances beyond our control” in the audience: as the show began, someone accidentally blasted out Blondie from their phone, and an elderly gentleman next to me started a frantic search for his lost glasses.

All of which just added to the perfect chaos of Frayn’s play, which goes beyond slapstick to find a kind of existential panic in farce – the sense that we’re making it up as we go along, desperately trying to stay one step ahead of disaster. Certainly, the beleagured company of the play-within-a-play, creaky sex comedy Nothing On, are scrabbling for a foothold as they rehearse and then tour the regions with their dismal production.

They include Dotty Otley, a veteran TV soap actress who not only plays housekeeper Mrs Clackett in the show, but – god help her – is a principal investor; leading man Garry, who can’t form a coherent sentence unless it’s scripted; ingenue Brooke, who is perennially losing her contact lenses; the relatively competent Belinda, who knows everybody’s business; sensitive Freddie, who gets nosebleeds and faints; and elderly Selsdon, who has problems with both hearing and drink.

Marshalling that lot – in theory – is jaded director Lloyd. We meet them on the eve of their first preview, when they’re still staggering through a rehearsal. Poor exhausted stage manager Tim is also understudying and acting as general fixer (the personification of exploited theatre staff, and one of many elements in this period piece that still rings true), while his deputy Poppy is part of a messy love triangle.

Frayn’s genius concept is to introduce us to all the players and the various pitfalls, and then reverse our view so we’re watching the action from backstage. The almost entirely silent Act II – which mirrors Nothing On by featuring farcical elements like dropped trousers and wild misunderstandings, but with added violence – remains the funniest set-piece you’ll ever see.

While the fictional company are easily confused by props and co-ordinating their movements, our real one put on an absolute tour-de-force team effort here with their lightning-fast mime, prop-swapping (flowers, whisky, sardines, a fire axe) and constant juxtaposition between backstage mayhem and somehow keeping the show going. It’s like watching an elite dance company in full flow.

Lindsay Posner’s production, which began at Bath last year to celebrate the play’s 40th anniversary, is well paced and has great fun with that weirdly English combination of sexual repression and property obsession (plus a running tax joke that Nadhim Zahawi might enjoy). However, it sometimes loses the spikiness of Frayn’s shrewdly observed characterisation.

For example, Felicity Kendal is endearing during Dotty’s despairing moments, but doesn’t do much with the comic contrast between her charlady persona and the haughty grand dame behind it. Likewise, Alexander Hanson supplies the essential weariness of Lloyd, without quite conveying his colossal, privately educated ego, the cruelty of his sarcasm, or the shark-like ruthlessness of this serial seducer.

I’ve seen funnier Brookes than Sasha Frost’s, but I did appreciate her lending dignity and tenacity to the underdressed character. Meanwhile Joseph Millson is magnificent as Garry, who switches from oily charm while in character to psychotic, jealousy-fuelled rage monster when he suspects infidelity. His commitment to the physical comedy is incredible – not just the big pratfalls, but bouncing up and down stairs while his shoelaces are tied together, like an unhinged pogo stick.

Jonathan Coy is excellent too as the desperately insecure Freddie, whose entire body collapses in on itself when Lloyd delivers one of his lines with a different intonation. And Matthew Kelly’s twinkly-eyed but slow-moving Selsdon is a masterpiece of detailed clowning.

But the show-stealer is Tracy-Ann Oberman, on utterly majestic form as know-it-all pro Belinda. She has a pasted-on, pageant-queen smile and flamboyant armography while performing, and brings a similar ostentation to her backstage role as micromanager and gossipmonger – along with a creamy insincerity to her constant stream of sympathy. When the production descends into anarchy, she adds more layers of sensual pizzazz to cover it up, including a manic laugh with her head flung back. Just fabulous.

Thespy theatregoers will love the in-jokes here – the darlings and loves and fretting about motivation – but Frayn’s play has always been about more than just stagecraft. All of us sense that yawning abyss and focus on bits of business to avoid it: doors and sardines, bags and boxes becoming Netflix and Wordle. Yet anarchy has never seemed so sublime.

Noises Off is at the Phoenix Theatre through 11 March. Book Noises Off tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Felicity Kendal (Dotty), Alexander Hanson (Lloyd) and Tracy-Ann Oberman (Belinda) in Noises Off (Photo credit: Nobby Clark)

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