With forty years and too many revivals to count under its belt, you might wonder if Michael Frayn’s Noises Off has any gas left in the tank. The 40th anniversary production, which has previously played at Bath and on tour, makes a brief appearance in the West End, with a star-studded cast that seems to indicate this is a play that could happily run and run.
It is famously a play-within-a-play. The cast essentially having to play two characters; firstly that of a mediocre actor in a touring production of a farcical sex comedy, Nothing On, and then the character of that very play. The theatrical joke is that the antics off stage are every bit as entertaining, and just as farcical, as those on stage.
The company also must run Nothing On three times, though for us, the audience, each time is considerable different. The first act of Noises Off takes us into the dress rehearsal for Nothing On. Merely hours before the opening night performance and it seems the production is doomed from the outset.
In the second act, we join the tour several months in, but watch (almost in complete silence) the mess happening backstage, as cast romances and jealousy comes to a head. The third time we visit Nothing On is on it’s final performance, and the outcome of that is best left as a surprise.
Felicity Kendal leads a sparkling cast as Dotty Otley, a character which could give Mrs Overall a run for her money. Equally as vibrant is Matthew Kelly as the hard of hearing, line-forgetting, alcohol loving, Selsdon, with Kelly revelling in the absurdity of it all.
As the professionals rain havoc down on every theatre they visit, it falls to stage hands and understudies Poppy and Tim (Pepter Lunkuse and Hubert Burton) to ensure the show goes on. As the most grounded characters Lunkuse and Burton do a marvellous job or balancing out the more flamboyant characters, such as Brooke (Sasha Frost) and Frederick (Jonathan Coy).
Tracy-Ann Oberman gives Belinda a deliciously mischievous streak, while Alexander Hanson as the perma-stressed director, Lloyd, delivers each line with precision. Joseph Millson as Garry has the audience in hysterics, mainly for the flawless slapstick deployed at exactly the right moments.
Lindasy Posner’s production shows just how clever Frayn’s play actually is, the second act in particular demonstrates the intense choreography required to pull off any theatrical production, but amplifies it even more in Noises Off. It is quite difficult to hear everything that’s being said; the Phoenix is one of the larger the theatres so perhaps microphones would have been beneficial.
Noises Off is superbly clever and wildly funny, it’s perhaps not quite as funny as some of the plays that it’s clearly inspired – such as The Play That Goes Wrong, but it remains a masterclass in farce.