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Noises Off Reviewed

Joan Davies is in a spin as the fast-paced farce comes to The Lowry

Written by . Published on June 19th 2013.

Noises Off Reviewed

MICHAEL Frayn’s ‘Noises Off’, one of the funniest plays I’ve ever seen, a guaranteed laughter factory, is on tour at The Lowry.

In a ‘play-within-a-play’ format, a touring theatre company is in panic mode as they hold the final rehearsal of their shambolic shabby farce ‘Nothing On’. Most of what can go wrong does go wrong, without any conviction that it’ll be all right on the night.

Bags, dresses, trousers and plates of sardines disappear and reappear behind different doors and confusion reigns.

Partly financed as a pension fund by retiring soap ‘star’ Dotty Ottley, the fictional show is hampered by her failing memory and by the alcoholism, adultery and petty jealousies which permeate the cast and crew.  The doors don’t work. The script’s not much better.  ‘Nothing On’ has a long, long tour ahead with Stockton-on-Tees as the finishing line. Nobody seems to be looking forward to it.

The real show contains neither failing memories nor dysfunctional doors. There’s not a foot wrong, nor a cue missed in a fact-paced performance of one of the silliest, cleverest plays you can ever see.

The opening act introduces characters and story. Neil Pearson, who last made me laugh in Drop the Dead Donkey, plays Lloyd Dallas, a frustrated and probably philandering director who just wants to rush off to the more promising Richard III. Maureen Beattie as Dotty, playing housekeeper Mrs Clackett, shifts wonderfully between voices and postures for her two roles

The inside story is a classic farce in a classic farce house well-populated with doors. Both cleaner and estate agent think the owners are in Spain, but the owners have returned secretly and need to avoid anyone who might be a tax-inspector, and to add to the mix there’s a burglar and the estate agent’s ‘secretary’ trying to do their thing. Bags, dresses, trousers and plates of sardines disappear and reappear behind different doors and confusion reigns.

Noises Off 2The Play Within The Play

At the end of act one it’s possible to doubt all those who told you it was the funniest play they’d ever seen. But act one is just a primer; you need to know it and know it well in preparation for act two.

Author Michael Frayn is clever, really clever. Dramatist, columnist, novelist and sometime philosopher, he’s taken an accessible drama form and given it a further twist, taking the conventions of farce backstage.

Apparently the idea for Noises Off came to him while seeing one of his own early plays, a farce, from backstage, and thinking that it was even funnier from there.

Act two is joyous. The audience sees the scene from backstage, the other side of those ubiquitous doors, while the play we’ve just seen is performed out of our sight. The writing is inspired, demanding impeccable timing and fearful energy from a well-drilled cast as the fictional cast allow their individual issues to put at risk their performance, now half-way through the run at Ashton-under-Lyne. Sasha Wadell is excellent as company stalwart Belinda Blair, commanding yet non-judgemental, epitomising the actors’ drive for the show to go on, and holding the stage while making space for others. David Bark-Jones displays part one of his amazing stair-technique: staying upright enough for a philandering estate agent.

Pace is vital in farce. Many fail to ignite because the pace is too slow. This production is certainly fast-paced and act two took two-thirds of the audience with it for at least half the time. But it was too fast. The audience only had time to look at what was happening back stage; it needed time to at least briefly recall what was going on in ‘Nothing On’. Played too fast, the anticipation, the realisation of the effect on the fictitious audience, is lost. That’s where the real comedy is in really good farce, the sort that leads to uncontrollable laughter. It’s not quite there.

By act three we’ve reached Stockton-on-Tees, the final leg.  We’re back to the standard view of the stage, but the production is beyond recovery. The production of ‘Nothing On’, that is. ‘Noises Off’ is back on track with a well-timed and presented third act. David Bark-Jones displays part two of his amazing stair-technique: falling down convincingly without, I hope, sustaining injury.

This production, an Old Vic production directed by Lindsay Posner, had rave reviews in London. Recast for the tour, it has excellent individual performances and strong ensemble work. But it just missed hitting the all the right buttons on Press Night, particularly in Act Two. Perhaps it’s the size of The Lowry’s Lyric that again is the problem. Years ago, I found a production in the intimacy of Oldham Coliseum superb, so this was a slight disappointment for me but it’s still a funny, entertaining and enjoyable night out.


Noises Off is on at The Lowry until Saturday 22 June. For more details, click here.

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