'Noises Off' review – Michael Frayn's genius backstage farce remains a marvel

Read our four-star review of the legendary comedy Noises Off, starring Felicity Kendal and Mathew Horne, now in performances at the Theatre Royal Haymarket to 16 December.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

It’s always wonderful to be reacquainted with Noises Off, the Michael Frayn comedy that I saw in its London and Broadway premieres some four decades ago and have revisited countless times since.

Director Lindsay Posner must feel a similar attachment. He staged a successful Old Vic production of this play in 2011, from which I remember Jamie Glover and Janie Dee as particular standouts, and this current version at the Haymarket is in fact a remounting of a production seen last season at the Phoenix Theatre that has since toured – with a few cast changes.

All of which means that Posner’s Noises Off is very nearly as well-travelled as Nothing On, the shambolic show-within-a-show that Frayn’s hapless assemblage are trying to get through without risking total collapse, both of themselves and the play. And, indeed, of civility itself.

That’s the lasting genius of an anomalous text from one of the great dramatic philosophers of our time, now age 90, for whom Noises Off is an outlier set against such piercing works as Copenhagen and, my favourite of his plays, Benefactors.

Watching the increasingly exasperated director Lloyd Dallas (Alexander Hanson, superb) banging on about “doors and sardines”, you’re aware of the finer details that are part of a well-ordered life. Remove a plate of sardines, as happens here with increasing regularity, and you risk disorder at best, madness at worst.

Frayn’s structure remains a marvel. The first act chronicles a chaotic dress rehearsal for a touring sex comedy whose real-life equivalents (No Sex Please, We’re British and the like) were once West End staples but have since faded into obscurity.

The second act takes place backstage, by which point the various liaisons and tensions amongst the company have spilled over into a performance that we hear but don’t actually see. Come the third act, and both Nothing On and the brave souls performing it are at their wits’ end, with little recourse left than to cry out “Curtain!”. Even that appeal, characteristically for this play, doesn’t go to plan.

It can be tricky to sustain the energy across a narrative whose middle act is in essence a slapstick ballet that depends upon split-second timing; any missteps could result in a real-life version of this very play.

Over time, the scatty Brooke – forever losing her contact lenses – has tended to be the standout part, earning awards for the actress playing her. Of late, though, the balance has shifted toward dashing, and manic, Garry Lejeune, the vainglorious thesp who is having an affair with his leading lady, Dotty Otley. (The characters’ names are themselves sublime.)

I’m not sure any Garry will ever tumble down a staircase with the elan shown last time round by Joseph Millson, but Mathew Horne, one of the newcomers here, offers hilarity of his own, confidently finishing near-every sentence with the definably vague “you know”.

James Fleet makes an unusually robust Selsdon, the elderly alcoholic whose whereabouts are an ongoing concern. And you have to hand it to Felicity Kendal, who, age 77, is far older than most Dottys and brings to the role a blithe awareness of the fragility of theatre presumably culled from first-hand experience.

I’ve seen crisper iterations of the play in my day, but Noises Off is still a joy – whenever and wherever one encounters it, and whatever one’s personal feelings about sardines.

Noises Off is at the Theatre Royal Haymarket through 16 December. Book Noises Off tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Noises Off (Photo by Nobby Clark)

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