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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Noises Off
Lyttelton Theatre Autumn 2000, Piccadilly Theatre 2001-2002, Comedy Theatre 2002

National Theatre 2000: Michael Frayn's 1982 backstage comedy is an almost foolproof delight that manages to parody the conventions of farce while being farcically hilarious itself.

A troupe of actors touring in a typical sex farce are first encountered in a disastrous dress rehearsal which at least gives us a sense of the play they're doing.

Two couples try to have secret assignations in the same supposedly empty house, managing to just miss each other and the housekeeper, by means of perfectly-timed (if things went right) entrances and exits through nine separate doors and windows.

Act Two is set backstage, midway through the run, when cast romances have begun to fall apart, and the smoothly-timed onstage action is counterpointed with frantic activity behind the scenes.

And Act Three takes us to the final performance, when everything starts going wrong and half the cast don't really care any more.

Frayn thus multiplies the laugh potential of farce many times over, as we laugh when he makes the split-second timing work, and laugh when he makes it miss, and laugh when he makes it miss though split-second mistiming.

(There's a stretch in the second act, for example, when one actor is trying to kill another and repeatedly just missing, because the other guy is coping with a crisis of his own, and both have to meet their cues to get back onstage, if you see what I mean.)

Under Jeremy Sams's direction, the cast take a little while to get going, which is perhaps wise: the relatively mild humour of Act One sets us up for the frantic action of Act Two and the total shambles of Act Three.

The comic spine of the play is provided by two characters, Dotty, playing the housekeeper who has trouble keeping track of essential props, and Garry, who is almost totally inarticulate as an actor but must play the smooth seducer onstage.

Patricia Hodge doesn't really capture Dotty's essential loopiness, which should allow her to accept every mishap and every rare occasion of things going right with cheery equanimity.

Aden Gillett hasn't quite mastered the comedy of incoherence, but he comes into his own when Garry becomes homicidal in Act Two and when he alone tries to keep the shambolic final performance on track.

As the hapless director, Peter Egan adds some insiders' giggles by hinting at parody of Trevor Nunn, while Natalie Walter shines as the airhead starlet who ironically is the only one who knows her lines in rehearsal, but then persists in reciting them by rote in the chaos of Act Three.

Some have questioned the NT's dedicating one of its hallowed halls to such commercial trivia. Well, if the national tour already planned for this production adds to the NT's coffers, all the better.

But beyond that, such an absolutely first-rate representative of its genre is at least as worthy of revival as one more minor Arthur Miller play. So there.

Gerald Berkowitz

Piccadilly Theatre 2001: After a brief tour, the National Theatre's revival of Michael Frayn's hilarious backstage farce has come to the West End for what one can only hope will be a long run.

My original review is above, so I'll just add a few comments (those who don't know the play might want to start with the earlier review).

There have been three significant changes since the National Theatre run, and at least 2 1/2 of them have been real improvements.

Two are casting changes. In the pivotal role of Dotty, the scatterbrained actress playing the scatterbrained housekeeper, Lynn Redgrave replaces Patricia Hodge.

I am a fan of Hodge, but she is not a natural farceur and had to work hard to find the laughs. Redgrave is a comedian, and she brings many added levels of comic confusion and absurdity to the role.

For example, there's a moment in the totally mad second act when she actually succeeds in giving us an invisible sight gag, just by guiding us to imagine what's happening offstage.

Stephen Mangan is now playing Gerry, the insanely jealous but virtually incoherent leading man, and he, too, adds a level of mad danger that wasn't fully captured earlier.

He also manages to give us an onstage sight gag (involving a flight of stairs) that is telegraphed long in advance but still contains comic surprises.

The other major change is a general goosing-up of the farcical level. Everyone plays a little broader than at the NT, punching gags rather than just letting them float by.

And, while I am generally happier with subtler playing, in this case it works. This isn't King Lear, after all, and once the laughs start coming, anything that can keep the comic energy high is welcome.

That's true for at least 3/4 of the play, though I must admit that towards the end the frantic attempt to gild the lily begins to get in the way of the play's own comedy, and might profitably be pulled back a couple of stops.

Still, Noises Off can promise you almost uninterrupted laughter for more than two hours, and not too many competitors can match that.

Gerald Berkowitz


Comedy Theatre 2002: The second transfer of the National Theatre's revival of Michael Frayn's classic backstage farce, with a complete new cast, gives the welcome opportunity for a return visit and another evening's virtually nonstop laughter.

For those who skipped the earlier reviews to scroll down to this one, a quick summary: we first watch the disastrous dress rehearsal of a typical sex farce involving several people not supposed to be in the same house at the same time.

Act Two takes us behind the scenes of a performance, when everyone in the cast is either sleeping with each other or trying to kill each other, or both. And Act Three shows us the final performance, when everything goes wrong and no one gives a damn.

All three acts are hilarious, and it may be only at a second or third viewing that one appreciates Frayn's accomplishment in creating three scenes of first-rate farce of different types.

The dress rehearsal is a character comedy of confusion and conflicting personalities, while the second act's backstage chaos is a tightly choreographed ballet of split-second farcical timing, and the last act provides the broad slapstick of total chaos.

For me, the second act is the best, a masterpiece of construction built on everyone being in the right place at the right second, passing props about with the seemingly-accidental ease that only comes with thorough rehearsal. But that preference does not in any way suggest that I don't laugh heartily through the rest of the play.

Driving the comic energy of the new cast are Selina Cadell, playing the aptly-named Dotty as somewhat less scatterbrained and more devil-may-care than her predecessors in the role, and Derek Griffiths in the usually secondary role of the nosebleed-and-fainting-prone Frederick.

Paul Thornley hasn't quite caught the rhythm of Garry's incoherence, but will with time, and Pandora Clifford brings an intriguing hard edge to the dumb blonde.

The staging and playing have gotten progressively broader since the move from the National, and one senses a certain amount of lily-gilding going on, particularly in the last act, where I think I spotted a few more pratfalls than before. But by that point the audience is so won over that excess can only succeed.

A word of warning, though. Don't let the box office sell you seats on the far left of the auditorium. The show, designed for a different theatre, has been badly wedged into the smaller Comedy stage, so that those sitting in the first three or four seats on the left aisle can't see an essential part of the set or any of the action on it.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Noises Off - National, Piccadilly and Comedy Theatre 2000
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