Noises Off

Reviewer's rating

Amid January’s gloom, with the long nights and longer gas bills, this new production of Noises Off brings a moment of blazing warmth into the West End. I saw it on a damp, drizzly, driech Burns Night at the start of its eight-week run at the Phoenix Theatre, and it brought more joy than any haggis ever could. Seriously, even if you’ve seen Noises Off before during its 40-year existence, see this brilliant production. And if, like me, you haven’t seen it before, be prepared to roar with laughter.

The dramatist Michael Frayn’s genius insight is that what goes on behind the scenes of a play, especially a Z-list touring production of something terrible, is far more interesting than the drama on stage. In Noises Off, we see a cast of has-beens and never-weres struggling through a production of Nothing On, an old school farce with dropped trousers, slamming doors, and a ‘hilarious’ case of mistaken identity whereby who characters covered in sheets and towels are believed to be an Arab sheikh and his wife.

So far, so terrible. But then the actors break character and reveal themselves as the collection of divas, luvvies, and frustrated theatrical types, thrown together on tour to Weston-super-Mare, Ashton-under-Lyme, and Stockton-on-Tees. We see the fraught rehearsal, the backstage rivalries, a love tangle betwixt cast and crew, and an alcoholic old stager, played wonderfully by Matthew Kelly.

Felicity Kendall plays a fretful theatrical grande dame forgetting her lines and misplacing the plate of sardines (no spoilers, but sardines feature heavily). She is no less fantastic as you might expect – an absolute star, skillfully mangling her dialogue and artfully forgetting to put props in the right place.

I would single out two others from the ensemble cast for praise. First, Tracy-Ann Oberman who brings comedy gold, and echoes of Alison Steadman in Abigail’s Party, to the role of Belinda, a drama queen in every sense. And Joseph Millson as Garry the actor who wins the Basil Fawlty Award for physical comedy, throwing himself down the stairs, slipping on sardines, and speeding across the stage with his shoelaces tied together by a jealous rival. I hope he has good insurance.

Alexander Hanson, playing Lloyd Dallas, the director who would rather be doing Richard III, declares ‘this show is beyond the help of a director!’ That may be true of Nothing On, but real-life director Lindsay Posner does a remarkable job of bringing Noises Off to a new audience, without the need to ‘update’ the setting or the narrative.

The under-25s might struggle with references to the ‘inland revenue’, the newspaper, and the old BT landline telephone, and modern audiences may wince at the Shiekh-in-a-sheet gag, but fealty to the play’s early-80s origin is the right call. The three ornamental ducks ascending the wall, the barometer, and the black-and-white portable TV tell us this is the era of the Falklands not Facebook.

Michael Frayn was in the audience with family members including his granddaughter, not born when the play first appeared. At the interval he declared this production a great success, and I have to humbly agree with the great man. It is a work of unbelievably complexity. To get so much wrong takes an awful lot of getting it right. As in The Play that Goes Wrong and its spin-offs, which owe much to Frayn’s original, there is much comedy in error.

It must be exhausting for actors to remember to forget their lines, to slip in and out of two different characters, and to remember where the sardines are meant to be, in order to be in the wrong place. A special mention for Sasha Frost who stoically performs her role in the 1970s-style farce in her saucy underwear, being unceremoniously shoved into cupboards to avoid detection, just the like a childhood game of…well, you know.

Just to make it even harder for the actors, Act II is conducted largely in mime (to avoid any ‘noises off’), as the cast bicker backstage and the crew (Pepter Lunkuse as Poppy and Jonathan Coy as Freddy) grapple with curtains that don’t work, actors who won’t act, and restless half-full auditoriums of pensioners who may or may not make it to the final curtain. Lunkase has the most important line (which I won’t reveal) but Coy has the most fitting. ‘This is getting farcical’ he declares, and it certainly is.