Review: Noises Off

It's a tour de farce from Frayn the comic genius


By John Nathan, December 22, 2011
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Old Vic, London SE1

Celia Imrie, playing a veteran luvvie, is part of a terrific cast in Noises Off

Celia Imrie, playing a veteran luvvie, is part of a terrific cast in Noises Off

Imagine a comedy so definitively comic that there seemed no point in ever writing another. That, with only a little exaggeration, is what Michael Frayn did to the genre of farce when he wrote Noises Off in 1982.

Actually, Frayn gives us two comedies for the price of one. It is very quickly revealed that the characters in an old-school country-house farce called Nothing On are actually actors in rehearsal before opening night.

Lines are fluffed, props are dropped and as the plot about an estate agent who uses the house as a love shack unfolds, so too does the love life of the increasingly exasperated director who is having an affair with the production assistant and a member of the cast.

I cannot think of another play which has quite so obviously been written by a comic genius. The second act alone is a jaw-droppingly clever piece of work. Without wanting to reveal too much, it builds to an almost wordless climax that mixes the timing of a Jacques Tati routine with Chaplinesque slapstick.

At the same time, it also reveals the increasingly deteriorating relationships between the actors on tour - and all this while they perform their play in which doors continually slam, plates of sardines are misplaced and, of course, at least one pair of trousers ends up around its owner's ankles.

And then something quite transcendental happens. The farce - that is, Nothing On - breaks down. Multiple versions of the same character - a burglar - appear on stage at the same time. Actors and characters become punch-drunk with confusion. Some stick robotically to the script, others ad lib in the hope of making sense of an increasingly nonsensical world. Identities are blurred and the fourth wall - the barrier between performance and audience - is repeatedly shattered. The result is as disorientating as anything by Pirandello (if ever there were six characters in search of an author, it is those in Nothing On), and as downright absurd as anything by Ionesco. It is also hilariously funny.

Those who have seen it before will marvel at the Swiss accuracy of Lindsay Posner's clockwork production. Those new to it will be too busy laughing.

Among the terrific cast, Celia Imrie as veteran luvvie Dottie is imperiously scatty, and Jamie Glover as her spurned lover executes the most terrifying stair-fall I have ever seen. But inevitably the real star here is Frayn.

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    Last updated: 11:38am, December 22 2011