This National Theatre revival of Noises Off, Michael Frayn's hilarious peek at the backstage shenanigans of a touring theatre company, heads back to the regions after going down a storm in the West End. We follow the actors, the director and behind the scenes staff of a farce called "Nothing On".
The cast of the 'play within a play' are eccentric to say the least. There's the actress with big ambitions and demands to match, Dotty Otley (Cheryl Campbell); the much put-upon director who calls everyone "love", Lloyd Dallas (Philip Franks), and a drunken actor with very few lines, Selsdon Mowbray (Sylvester McCoy). These and other zany characters struggle to keep their dignity intact and their trousers on.
As Dallas directs from the stalls, Selsdon's drunken walkabouts bring him into the auditorium and right on top of the thrilled audience. The other surprise is that you don't necessarily have to be a fan of farce in order to appreciate the knockabout humour in Noises Off. Much of Frayn's comic observations take a jibe at theatre productions in general, regardless of genre. Robert Jones' marvellous two-way set enables the audience to view life in front of and behind the curtain.
Each member of the cast is terrific. Campbell obviously enjoys letting her hair down as Dotty; she has a real flair for comedy. Franks delivers each line like a bullet and hits the bulls-eye each time. In a supporting role, Andrew Pointon gives a fantastic performance as the hapless handyman Tim Allgood who has to address the audience after a few technical difficulties during "Nothing On."
As the performers struggle to keep their offstage hell-like existence from the audience, the play goes into overdrive. Though some may find the humour relentless and overplayed, the majority of the audience on the night I attended was unable to catch their breaths between their second-act bouts of laughter. Either way, you can't help but admire Frayn's delicious script. While parodying it in part, he also gives full respect to the tradition of farce - and you get the feeling he quite likes the 'underwear and slamming door' jokes, too.
- Glenn Meads (reviewed at The Lowry, Salford Quays)
Note: The following review dates from May 2001 and the production's earlier West End run and cast.
Nothing On is a piss-poor farce. It's predictable and clichéd and peopled by TV has-beens who seem more concerned with their backstage shenanigans than they do with proceedings on stage. Absolutely dreadful - perfect, therefore, for a sublime send-up.
And Michael Frayn's award-winning Noises Off, first seen in 1982, truly is the send-up to end all send-ups. His comedy captures this fictitious production at three distinct stages of its regional tour - from the ill-prepared dress rehearsal at Weston-super-Mare, through the mid-schedule chaos at Ashton-under-Lyne to the final night free-for-all at Stockton-on-Tees. Over a period of two months, the company - mainly former stars of that TV classic "On the Zebras" - evolve from good-natured, show-must-go-on luvvies to an assembly of drunks, idiots and two-timing, hysterically petty lovers.
Of the three acts, the second - in which Robert Jones' reversible set gives us a glimpse of what's going on backstage while, at the same time, the play-within-a-play is spun out to the OAP-filled "front of house" - is unquestionably the best and, thanks to director Jeremy Sams, an extraordinary feat of stopwatch timing and comic physicality. Act One suffers from being more Nothing On than Noises Off, but this is forgivable given what dividends familiarity with the fictional piece pays later in Act Three, a triumph of mislaid props and missed cues.
There have been two cast changes since this revival's debut at the National last year. But while Lynn Redgrave (as headliner Dotty Otley) and Stephen Mangan (as her young co-star and boyfriend Garry Lejeune) don't have the same history with the production, neither exhibit any lack of confidence. Mangan, in particular, is superb as the actor who glowers as he fumbles, disadvantaged in his efforts to improvise by a chronic inability to, you know, find the right word.
The rest of the ensemble are uniformly excellent with Peter Egan making the most satisfactory transformation as the libidinous director who descends from cool God-like detachment to total, chaotic embroilment. Susie Blake is terrific, too, as the soothing old trouper Belinda Blair, and Jeff Rawle as Frederick Fellowes wins, hands down, the award for best pantomime pratfalls.
Though not often remarked upon, the sound design also deserves special mention here. Fergus O'Hare's off-stage thuds, crashes and tannoy announcements are critical to the shambolic plot and, as with everything else, delivered with assured precision.
"This is getting farcical," stage hand Tim (Paul Thornley) remarks during Act Two, committing perhaps the understatement of the new century. But what a farce! The only drawback is that you - and all around you - are likely to be laughing so hard you'll miss much of the dialogue.
Note: This review dates from October 2000 and the production's run at the National Theatre.
Frayn's witty and affectionate portrait of a theatre company's rendition - some would say murder - of 'Robin Housemonger's' paradigmatic English farce 'Nothing On' has found resonance in the theatre-going public since its debut. Many of its audience have acted in community productions (and, indeed, professional ones too) that teetered on disaster's precipice. Even so, none could have been as completely hilarious in its catastrophic collapse as the one we happily witness.
Early in Act One, during a sloppy late night dress rehearsal, 'Nothing On's' director Lloyd Dallas (a suitably lugubrious Peter Egan) intones: 'And God saw that it was terrible.' As off-stage deity, and womaniser, manically losing control of his proceedings, Dallas is an impotent (but impregnating) deity. He cannot rein in the maverick Dotty Otley (a batty Patricia Hodge, sporting a frizzy red wig and garish lipstick), the panicky Garry Lejeune (Aden Gillett, excellent), the chronically myopic Brooke Ashton (game Natalie Walter), or their colleagues Belinda (Susie Blake), Frederick (Jeff Rawle), and the veteran who is always late, Selsdon Mowbray (Christopher Benjamin).
Into Housemonger's mix of dropping trousers, the girl in her underwear, and lots of slamming doors, Frayn adds feuds, revenge, sabotage and chaos. Act Two is a rarity, since it is essentially carried by a dumb show cum pantomime. Occasionally the slapstick and pratfalls are clumsily executed, but no matter; we are too busy wiping our eyes from tears of laughter to care.
Robert Jones's set, depicting the Brent country seat, is an overkill of doors and wooden panelling, and it serves well when reversed for our behind-the-scenes view in Act Two.
With slippage on banana skins replaced by the ubiquitous sardines - the fish acting as a maguffin in Housemonger's plot, if you like - cast warfare destroys the Stockton-upon-Tees' finale of their regional tour. At the real curtain call, the beams on the actors' faces were as broad as those of the audience.
Paul B Cohen