A complete guide to 'Noises Off' in the West End
I have never laughed harder in a theatre than when I first saw Michael Frayn’s incomparable farce Noises Off – and it still makes me cry with laughter every time I revisit it. It is, quite simply, the funniest show in theatre, which is why 2023 is going to start in the best possible way for London audiences: with a brilliant revival of Noises Off coming to the West End.
Playing at the Phoenix Theatre, this special 40th-anniversary production began at Theatre Royal Bath and stars Felicity Kendal, Jonathan Coy, Matthew Kelly and Tracy-Ann Oberman. They play actors in a doomed production of the creaky bedroom farce Nothing On (the play-within-the-play), which descends into utter chaos during its regional tour – much to the delight of viewers of Noises Off.
Find out more about Frayn’s immaculate comedy, from its origins to the film adaptation, plus this new West End production, with our complete guide to Noises Off.
How Noises Off began
Noises Off is just one of the great works by the legendary writer Michael Frayn. His other plays include the Tony Award-winning Copenhagen and highly praised Democracy, while his novels include the similarly acclaimed Headlong and Spies.
But Noises Off stands out as his comic masterpiece. Frayn had the idea for the show when he visited a performance of his play The Two of Us in 1970 – and realised that the farce was much funnier to watch from backstage than from the front, what with all the frantic scrambling to sort out props and costumes, time the entrances correctly, and with the cast’s real-life issues becoming entangled with the business of putting on a show.
In 1977, Frayn premiered the first, short version of Noises Off, then called Exits. His associate Michael Codron loved the idea and encouraged him to expand it into a full-length piece. The new title refers to offstage sounds — or, more generally, life from offstage creeping into the onstage show.
What happens in Noises Off?
Noises Off features a ragtag theatre company who are staging the tired sex farce, Nothing On, which was once a popular staple of British touring theatre (think “hilarious” mistaken identities, everyone losing their clothes, and people constantly popping in and out of different doors). In the first act, we see their technical rehearsal in Weston-super-Mare: the show is far from ready, and director Lloyd grows increasingly irate.
Act Two is set a month later, during a matinee in Ashton-under-Lyne. Now, we see the whole set from backstage instead, and, in a hysterically funny, near-silent sequence, we watch as various personal dramas escalate into tears, confusion and violence – while they also try to keep the show going.
By Act Three, at a performance near the end of the run in Stockton-on-Tees, it’s open warfare. Now we see the show play out from the front, but it’s complete bedlam; we now know Nothing On (and its performers) well enough to understand where, how and why it’s going horribly wrong.
How Noises Off became a comedy hit
The play premiered at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1982, starring Patricia Routledge and Paul Eddington, and directed by Michael Blakemore. Audiences loved it immediately and so did critics: it transferred to the Savoy Theatre in the West End, where it continued to run for an incredible five years, and it won both the Olivier Award and the Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy.
The show might seem quintessentially English, but that humour definitely transferred over the pond. In 1983, Noises Off repeated its success on Broadway, starring Dorothy Loudon and Victor Garber, at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. It was Tony-nominated, and won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Ensemble.
Noises Off is regularly revived: it’s a favourite of community theatres as well as professional ones. Major revivals include the 2000 National Theatre production, starring Patricia Hodge, Peter Egan and Aden Gillett, and directed by Jeremy Sams, which then also played in the West End at the Piccadilly Theatre – with Stephen Mangan and Lynn Redgrave joining the cast. That production travelled back to Broadway, starring Patti LuPone, Peter Gallagher, TR Knight, Katie Finneran and Faith Prince.
Then in 2012, Lindsay Posner helmed a new version at the Old Vic, with Celia Imrie, Robert Glenister and Janie Dee. That revival also played in the West End, due to public demand, this time at the Novello Theatre. On Broadway, the Roundabout Theatre Company mounted another revival in 2015 with Andrea Martin, Campbell Scott and Megan Hilty.
In 2019, Noises Off returned to its original home, the Lyric Hammersmith, led by Lloyd Owen and Meera Syal, and directed by Jeremy Herrin. In a review on London Theatre, our critic said: "It never fails to surprise, delight and exhilarate, no matter how many times you've seen it before. Part of the pleasure is always in seeing the infectious (and resolutely hard-working) efforts of the cast to rise above the mounting panic of their situation to maintain some semblance of control."
There was even a film adaptation in 1992, directed by Peter Bogdanovich – although unfortunately that was a total flop. Despite a cast teeming with talent (Michael Caine, Carol Burnett, John Ritter, Marilu Henner, Christopher Reeve, Nicollette Sheridan, Denholm Elliott), Frayn’s conceit just didn’t work on screen. Noises Off is a theatre show through and through.
Why is Noises Off so funny?
Part of its genius is purely that it’s such a perfectly constructed meta-farce: the comedy always works on several levels, and the Act Two meltdown, in particular, maps the backstage shenanigans onto the actual play with astonishing precision. It also encompasses several kinds of humour, from the knowing luvvie gags about theatrical types through to the broad visual comedy. It’s simply the best, and silliest, slapstick in the business.
But is there more to it than that? Noises Off also seems to connect with audiences on a primal level. It says something about the human condition: how we desperately try to carry on in the face of disaster, and maintain some sort of order or control lest we succumb to panic and tumble into the abyss. The more alarming real events are around us, the more cathartic it is to have that translated into comedy – the kind where you can belly-laugh till it hurts.
Noises Off at the Phoenix Theatre
So, hurrah for the return of Noises Off in January 2023. This 40th-anniversary production comes into the West End after delighting audiences around the UK while on tour. Directed by Lindsay Posner, it features The Good Life’s Felicity Kendal as Dotty Ottley – the TV star who has put all of her money into Nothing On, and who plays the Cockney housekeeper Mrs Clackett.
Alexander Hanson plays director Lloyd, who simultaneously romances young actress Brooke (Sasha Frost) and put-upon assistant stage manager Poppy (Pepter Lunkuse). Playing the other beleaguered cast members are: Tracy-Ann Oberman as resident gossip Belinda; Matthew Kelly as the veteran with a drink problem, Selsdon; Joseph Millson as Garry, the furiously jealous lover of Dotty; and Jonathan Coy as insecure and prone-to-fainting Freddie.
It’s a treat to have this incredible comedy back in the West End, and with such an exciting cast – plus it’s the perfect antidote to January blues. Four decades on, Frayn’s comedy is still the funniest show in town. So, don’t delay: get booking Noises Off tickets now!
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