Noises Off

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Michal Frayn’s famous farce is as fresh as ever and this touring production is going to go down, in my opinion, as a classic.

Every member of the cast is perfect for his or her role – with each actor actually playing two roles, the character within a sex farce called Nothing On by one Robin Housemonger, and the actor who is playing each role in that farce. The movement of the play is a study of increasing incompetence, chaos and deterioration within a touring company. As Michael Frayn said when he conceived the play, the action backstage is much crazier and more interesting than the action on the stage. And from the start, we are effectively backstage.

Each of the three acts is a version of the first act of Nothing On. The hilarity comes in part from watching how the playing of this act becomes more and more crazy. First we have the technical or dress rehearsal (they cannot decide themselves which it is) at midnight on the day the play is opening in Weston-super-Mare. The production is unready, stage business and cues are missed, lines are messed up, props go adrift. Lloyd Dallas, the director, played by Simon Shepherd with perfect aplomb and increasing frustration, is trying to get the show on the road. We meet all the other characters both in character and as themselves and begin to learn, for instance, that Dotty Otley (a delightful Liza Goddard), is playing a slow witted Cockney house-keeper but in life is actually a middle-aged TV and probably fading star  and, it’s revealed later, a major investor in the show. Dan Fredenburgh plays Garry Lejeune, a solid actor who, it later turns out, is dating Dotty and easily becomes jealous. Two of the backstage youngsters  (beautifully realised by Nikhita Lesler as the emotional and rather skittish Poppy, the Assistant Stage Manager and Daniel Rainford as Tim Allgood, the constantly flustered Stage Manager) are also understudies while Paul Bradley plays Selsdon Mowbray, the elderly, half-deaf star at the end of a major career who has a very serious drinking problem that the rest of the cast has to monitor.

The undercurrent of all these back stories is serious and there emerges as the tour goes on a serious triangle involving Brooke, played by Lisa Ambalavanar, who is young, naïve and inexperienced, the Director and the Assistant Stage Manager. Two more of the cast of actors are Frederick Fellowes (who keeps having nosebleeds and is dim-witted and insecure) and Belinda Blair, easily the only cheerful and sensible person in the company, the peacemaker who is also motheringly protective towards Freddie.

All the revelations about the characters, both the real lives of the actors and the ones in the play they are performing, emerge so farcically and with such energetic and constantly increasing slapstick, that the evening is essentially a continuous laugh festival. The comedy escalates like a crescendo by Rossini.

Act Two takes place at a Wednesday matinee a month later and is seen entirely from backstage (the brilliant set having been turned and become, itself, almost one of the characters) where we can follow the deterioration of the relationships among the cast. Act Three takes place back on the set at the end of the ten-week run with everything breaking down worse than ever and the action presenting more physical knockabout surprises. The speed and timing of every movement of each actor throughout the playing of this hilarious farce is impeccable. If you have never seen Noises Off, you are in for a lot of surprises and a huge treat. If you have seen it before, this production certainly does proud the concept and the developing chaos of the stories that are both on stage and off.

Writer Michael Frayn

Director Lindsay Posner

Cast: Liza Goddard, Simon Shepherd, Dan Fredenburgh, Lisa Ambalavanar,

Nikhita Lesler, Simon Coates, Lucy Robinson, Daniel Rainford, Paul Bradley

Duration 2 hours 30 minutes with interval

Oxford Playhouse until 24 February 2024 and touring