Michael Frayn's Noises Off is a play about putting on a farce (Nothing On), whose first act we get to see three times as the production spirals into chaos. Even at the dress-rehearsal things aren’t right. Half the cast can’t manage to get a plate of sardines on and off at the right time, never mind remember their lines or come on stage when they are supposed to. Things are worse by the time we join the production for the second time, a month into the run.
Then we go backstage and the cast are at each other’s throats, but as nobody can make any noise for fear of upsetting the show the whole thing is mimed. Finally, three months down the line, we see the shambles that the production has become from the front.
Stefan Escreet’s pacey production goes for laughs from the off, making the most of Frayn’s gallery of theatre stereotypes. Peter MacQueen’s characterisation of an out-to-lunch veteran actor is particularly larger than life, and Kate Layden switches to good effect between comic cockney charlady and the regal but prone to confusion actress playing her. Heather Saunders’ starlet offers a nice line in wide-eyed disconnection from reality. Jack Power also makes the most of his fuddy-duddy, prone to nosebleeds and fainting at the sight of blood.
Part of the fun of the play is more competent characters trying to work out how to cope with this menagerie, and here Matthew Vaughan’s exasperated theatre director and Heather Phoenix’s gossipy middle-aged actress remind us of what sanity looks like, with solid support from the tech crew of Benjamin Askew and Fiona Drummond. Ben Ingles gives us a bravura turn as the initially assured actor whose own carefully polished performance comes to pieces gesture by gesture during the run.
The collective incompetence of the ensemble characters is perhaps over-emphasised in the opening scene; though they – and their mostly awful acting - are easy to laugh at, this means that Nothing On is already more than half-unravelled before it starts. But when we are backstage the performance really flies with half an hour of manically intense silent comic ‘business’, nicely choreographed by director Escreet and fight director Kate Waters. Here the cast have infectious fun, with plenty of new gags for those who’ve seen it before, and so does the audience.
Noises Off is fast paced and frenetic then and ideal for lovers of slapstick.