Noises Off, Michael Frayan’s classic farce within a farce, may be undemanding entertainment, but it is highly talented undemanding entertainment.
It might be self-indulgent, but most play writers will at some point write a play about producing a play. This is, unsurprisingly, particularly popular with other writers, actors and directors who spot all the in-jokes straight away. There’s the Farndale Avenue Townswomen’s Guild series, the popular Bad Play trilogy at the Edinburgh Fringe, but the show of this kind that dominates the West End is Michael Frayan’s 1982 classic, Noises Off. So, as someone who has written, acted and directed myself, I watched this with some trepidation: will I see ,yself on stage? I was spared that, but pretty much everything else in the play I recognise from real events: forgetting lines (check), prompt bellowing aforementioned line (check), actor not hearing aforementioned line (check), people left standing on stage like idiots because someone’s to enter (check), forgetting to bring the right props on stage (check), contrived improvisation to compensate for aforementioned prop (check), leaving complicated sets until the last moment (check), actors not taking in clear instructions (check), actors asking stupid questions (check), and actors storming off in the final rehearsal (check). The only thing I don’t think I’ve seen first-hand is a play where the director works his way through half the female cast and crew. (Thinks: which theatre company is this based on, and how can I get a job directing one of their plays?)
As a play within a play, Noises Off provided a programme within a programme. And so the première of Nothing On comes to Weston-Super-Mare. The programme contains adverts for escorts agencies and “Saunarama” (presumably not where you go for a sauna), which should suitably set your expectations for how this is going to work out. Nothing On is – in theory – a farce, but by far the biggest farce is the attempt to produce this play. Act One is set in the dress rehearsal – or is it the tech? That’s a moot point, because we’ve had neither thanks to set-building overrunning by two days, and it’s now past midnight with its opening tomorrow. The company struggles through the first act, with two overworked stage hands-cum-prompts-cum-understudies try in vain to keep the show together, whilst cast members with mixed degrees of competence, mainly the lower end. Nor does it help that half the company seems to be embroiled in one or more affairs. And to top it off, a director who is far too sarcastic for his own good. But will it be all right on the night? Guess.
After the interval, in Act One. Yes, Noises Off has Act One, Act One and Act One, and the same first act is repeated in ascending order of disastrousness. Now we are in Ashton-Under-Lyne, this time watching the full horrors from backstage. To be honest, by this point, I’d lost track of the latest developments in the power struggles and who’s now having an affair with who, but it doesn’t really matter, because once the play begins out front, all the havoc going on out the back is silent. After the act finishes with the stage hand telling the director she’s pregnant, Act One finishes and it’s on to Act One, now in Stockton-on-Tees. This time, miraculously, the cast have crew have pulled themselves together and it goes off without a hitch – only kidding, it’s an even bigger disaster. It’s back to viewing the play from the front, and it’s a catastrophe of missing props, collapsing sets, botched entrances, understudies on stage the same time as the character they’re meant to be understudying, and ever-wilder improvisation to cover for all of this. Finally, they stumble to the end of the act, and curtain. Curtain falls off pole. You get the picture.
What you won’t see in this place is any story for the sake of story. All the plot threads throughout the play are there to build up the slapstick. We never do get to hear the resolutions of the many stories affecting this hapless company, be it the love triangles, the collapsing marriage or anything else that’s been going on during the tour. What became of this baby mentioned in the second act? We don’t know. Michael Frayan chose to prioritise comedy over everything else, and he succeeded, by Noises Off is indisputably an out-and-out comedy. But like One Man, Two Guvnors last year, there isn’t any real depth to the piece. Comedy does not have to be written to the exclusion of a moving plot, but ultimately, I can only really consider this undemanding entertainment. And there’s nothing wrong with this, because it’s silly and snobbish to think that people should only ever go to theatres to be challenged, but I can’t see people one hundred years for now earnest discussing the motivation of the protagonist and antagonist.
But whilst this may be undemanding entertainment, it is highly talented undemanding entertainment. The obvious thing to highlight is the fast-paced choreography of the play, especially the backstage act where the havoc one side of the set is synchronised with the havoc behind the set with military precision. But it’s not just that. You know the recurring joke throughout the play where the props are always in the wrong place? Someone’s got to keep track of all these props an make share they are all correctly placed incorrectly. Pictures falling off walls, doors opens and closing at the wrong time, all of this has to run perfectly with no room for error. So credit to director Lindsay Posner and crew for keeping on top of all of this.
And do not underestimate the achievement with the writing here. Most people now, thankfully, appreciate that good comedy is not easier to write than drama, and certainly not farce. What less people might appreciate is how difficult this particular format is. It’s easy to think “Oh, what a good idea that was, doing the same act one three times, wish I’d thought of that, I could have done that,” but you’d be wrong. Committing yourself to performing the same set of lines three times over is a huge constraint; spend too long repeating the same set of lines and people get bored; but dialogue one side of the set doesn’t wait for whatever’s happening the other side to finish. This is technical scriptwriting at its most complicated, which few writers manage to pull off.
Is this production impressive as a showcase for what you can achieve on stage? Undoubtedly. Will it join The Importance of Being Earnest and Hamlet in a list of literary greats? Unlikely. Will you enjoy watching it? Probably, as long as you take this play for what it is. Would you enjoy it as much as a play with less complicated staging and a more complicated storyline? That depends on what you’re after. No, Noises Off isn’t the most thought-provoking comedy out there, but the thought and talent that went into making this is an achievement, and that’s why this show is still popular three decades on.