Noises Off - Theatre Royal Haymarket
It seems slightly odd that in a world that seems so much more chaotic than it was when Noises Off premiered in 1982 that a show, as well as a show within a show, where more goes awry than right, should continue to raise as many laughs as it does in its latest incarnation. For the uninitiated, a brief rundown of proceedings, without giving too much away: there are three acts in the play, each called ‘Act One’. Accordingly, there is an interval between Act One and Act One, but then there is no interval between Act One and Act One (geddit?). The second half is thus longer than the first. The play within the play is called Nothing On, a bedroom farce complete with slamming doors and a dubious plot: the first ‘Act One’ is the technical rehearsal, the second is from a backstage view of a performance about a month into a UK tour of Nothing On, and the third, reverting to a frontstage (so to speak) view, takes place near the end of the tour.
Michael Frayn, now ninety years young, emerged to take a bow at the press night curtain call: as a fellow reviewer pointed out to me, a review of Noises Off in 2023 seems almost superfluous. Surely by now it must be evident, given its numerous revivals over the years, how popular it is with the theatregoing public. Frayn himself has apparently referred to it as his ‘Mousetrap’ – it may not have played continuously in the West End for decades, but there have been various productions of it in various languages in different countries.
Of course, it is a show of its time, and Frayn (or indeed anybody else) probably wouldn’t write something now that has younger women in little more than their underwear and older men with trousers that can’t or won’t stay up. Alexander Hanson’s Lloyd Dallas (whose off-stage antics would probably get him cancelled these days) is increasingly exasperated as the technical rehearsal for Nothing On is dragging on, going past the wrong side of midnight – in this day and age, the first preview would probably be pushed back a couple of days. His irritability doesn’t let up when he returns later in the show’s run, having already started rehearsals elsewhere for his next production. Belinda Blair (Tamzin Outhwaite) appears to be the nearest thing to a resident director, and gets possibly the biggest laugh of the night in a display of flamboyancy to cover up yet another stage mishap.
Fans and followers of the show who know the script in intricate detail will doubtless be able to point out amendments made to this latest production, but for the most part, it has stayed the same, with the second ‘Act One’ being particularly amusing, even though it has far less dialogue than the other two acts, on account of silence being required backstage whilst the performance is ongoing. Felicity Kendal’s Dotty Otley elicited some sympathy from the audience in her initial struggles to get the order of what is meant to be a briskly paced scene correct. Mathew Horne’s Garry Lejeune has a likeable stage presence, and there are days when I feel like Selsdon Mowbray (James Fleet), drinking as much alcohol as I can get my hands on – to use a contemporary turn of phrase, you could even say I identify with him.
The whole thing is incredibly physical in parts, and while the narrative may be as demanding on the brain as loading a dishwasher, it’s still exhausting to watch in some ways. Each character adds to the comedy value in their own way – even Sasha Frost’s Brooke Ashton, who refuses to go with the flow, sticking solidly to the script regardless of what is actually happening, has something of a ‘keep calm and carry on’ aura about her. Mischief Theatre’s Goes Wrong franchise may well be bolder stuff than Noises Off but there’s still plenty of humour in what has become a modern classic. I wasn’t laughing so hard that I was gasping for air as I was the very first time I saw this show some years ago. But this brilliantly performed and light-hearted production is just the tonic in these difficult and unpredictable times.
Photo credit: Nobby Clark