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Noises Off

by on 5 October 2022

Doors and Sardines!

Noises Off

by Michael Frayn

Theatre Royal Bath Productions at Richmond Theatre until 15th October, then on tour until 29th October

Review by Andrew Lawston

There is something terribly fitting about the short delay before the curtain rises on Noises Off this evening.  Although the word in Richmond Theatre’s foyer is that they’re finalising the extensive set, everyone who has seen a previous production of Michael Frayn’s much-loved play is cracking wry jokes about plates of sardines, and wondering what state the production will be in by the time the tour reaches Stockton-on-Tees.

But soon enough the curtain rises on Robin Housemonger’s classic bedroom farce Nothing On, and Mrs Clackett totters across the stage to answer a ringing telephone, with just a shade of the opening scene of The Real Inspector Hound in her delivery.

As director Tim Allgood storms up to the stage for the first of many exasperated interjections, we quickly realise that we’re watching a shambolic technical (or is it the dress?) rehearsal of Nothing On.  As events unfold in this original “play that goes wrong”, we learn almost as much about the actors as we do about their characters.

Mrs Clackett, or Dotty Otley, is played with perfect comic timing by bona fide national treasure Felicity Kendal, and receives a huge round of applause on her first entrance.  Kendal is quickly joined by Joseph Millson’s Garry Lejeune and Sasha Frost’s Brooke Ashton.  Millson begins as an imposing presence, striding around the stage, which is undercut by his inability to ever quite make a point, ending sentences with a confident but unhelpful, “you know?”  As the play goes on, Garry is perhaps the character who falls apart most spectacularly, straying into Basil Fawlty territory as he performs increasingly physical comedy, including some impressively staged falls in the climactic third act.

Meanwhile, Sasha Frost gamely fulfils the farce staple of jumping through doors in her underwear, while also performing entertaining business during frequent searches for her missing contact lenses.  Brooke is in a relationship with Alexander Hanson’s stressed director Lloyd Dallas, but even at this early stage it does not appear to be going smoothly.

We gradually learn these little details about all the characters.  Jonathan Coy’s mild-mannered and vulnerable Frederick Fellowes has just separated from his wife, and faints in the face of violence, while Matthew Kelly’s wonderfully hammy old actor Selsdon Mowbray is not only largely deaf, but clearly likes a drop to wet his whistle.  Meanwhile, Tracy-Ann Oberman is a wonderfully magnetic Belinda Blair – the audience doesn’t learn much about her directly, but she clearly sees herself as the dedicated professional struggling to keep the show together, while also being an incurable gossip.

Hubert Burton and Pepter Lunkuse butt heads as junior backstage personnel Tim Allgood and Poppy Norton-Taylor respectively.  While Tim’s character doesn’t get a huge amount of depth beyond being put-upon and harried, Hubert brings a good-natured exuberance to the role.  Then there’s Poppy’s relationship with the womanising director, Lloyd.  All these character details are presented as trivial conversation, before slowly knitting together to help the entire production fall apart in entertaining style.

The triumph of Noises Off over other genre parody plays is that the framing narrative of Nothing On works as the first act of a simplistic but competent farce, with an attention to detail that goes right down to the painstaking fake programme, complete with biographies of the fictional actors.  That the audience is willing to watch, and to be raucously entertained by, one play performed three times in rapid succession, is a tribute to Michael Frayn’s skill as a playwright, Lindsay Posner’s pacy direction, and the energetic determination of the whole cast.

When a play is as enduring and well-loved as Noises Off, often directors meddle with the formula at their peril, and there are no wild innovations here.  During the second act, however, the set revolves as the actors perform Nothing On a few weeks into the tour, while the audience watch the backstage antics during the performance.  There has been a clear decision taken to prioritise the largely wordless physical comedy over the farce’s performance which is only dimly visible through the French windows.  Some productions choose to have the dialogue fully audible to the audience during these scenes while the slapstick takes place quietly backstage, but in this production, the actors crash about with great gusto, confident that we will recognise where they are in their play from the odd line, and the slamming of various doors.  This is a sensible choice which helps keep the energy high and heightens the impact of the action.

While the whole play is full of movement, action and physical comedy, it is clearly the second act that allows fight director Ruth Cooper-Brown to shine, and in terms of audience reaction, it is perhaps the most successful segment of the show.

There is always a risk of the energy dipping a little at the start of the third act, as the set revolves back, and the actors themselves are clearly weary of the play they are still performing.  Felicity Kendal’s pained performance as Dotty means this isn’t the case here, and the final iteration of Nothing On builds to a fantastically chaotic crescendo.

A warm audience, many of whom have clearly seen the play before, laugh almost constantly throughout all three acts.  This is a confident production of a well-loved play, with a cast full of well-loved actors, and it all makes for a truly wonderful night out.

Andrew Lawston, October 2022

Photography by Nobby Clark

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