Michael Frayn’s farce about a
farce has proved very popular in its revival at London’s National
“Noises Off” begins with an all-night rehearsal of a farce called
“Nothing On” by a touring company in Weston-super-Mare.
Frayn, whose recent success “Copenhagen” gave audiences something
to think about, now gives them something to laugh about: the chaos
that is always lurking as we attempt to impose order on disorder.
If a prop is lacking, a cue misplaced, or timing off, chaos reigns.
“Getting on, getting off,” laments Lloyd
Dallas (Peter Egan) the worn-out director of “Nothing On,” “Doors
and sardines. That’s farce, that’s the theater, that’s life,”
he declares from the stalls, where he is desperately trying to
achieve the semblance of a comedy onstage while the clock ticks
towards the opening hour.
In the first act, in the cast’s final rehearsal,
everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Lines are confused,
entrances clash with exits, as the housekeeper Dotty (Lynn Redgrave)
is dashing about with a plate of sardines and hoping for a quiet
afternoon off watching television while the master is away.
He returns unexpectedly, to no one’s surprise except the characters
in the farce, who include a rental agent and his bimbo girlfriend
(stripping off and hoping to use the bedroom), and assorted burglars
A month later, with the performance seen from
backstage, the actors are developing in their personal lives a
more interesting and equally involved plot. The juvenile
lead is having an affair with Dotty and is insanely jealous, even
to wielding a fire axe, when he finds her in what seems like a
compromising position. With the back of the set facing us, the
actors scramble with stuck doors, misplaced props and costumes,
actors’ temperamentally refusing to appear or disappearing due
to drink. The director turns up backstage, taking a brief
respite from directing “Richard III” elsewhere (his lead has a
back problem) to patch things up with the juvenile actress he
is romancing. Her contact lenses keep dropping out into
inconvenient landing spots.
In act three, seen from the front, we view
the final performance of the provincial tour of “Nothing On”.
Hilariously for those unacquainted with theater production and
even more amusing for those who are, the play is virtually unrecognizable.
Lines are made up or rephrased by the actors, cues are missed,
improvisation is rampant, props and even the sets are destroyed.
Under Jeremy Sams’ direction, this cast must be impeccable
in their timing, and never miss a cue, all of which they perform
to perfection as the less than perfect but very human members
of the touring cast. Frayn’s inventiveness builds laugh upon laugh,
and as with all good farces, we enjoy the mishaps because they
reflect the human condition.