A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
Noises Off

   Michael Frayn’s farce about a farce has proved very popular in its revival at London’s National Theatre.  “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 and sheiks.

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.