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Noises Off—Nothing On—Everything Goes

By Kelli Frost-Allred
From Midsummer Magazine, 2000

 

When Act 1 of Noises Off ended, I spent most of the intermission massaging my overworked facial muscles. After working in theatre for over twenty-five years, and after reading thousands of plays, I can say with authority that Noises Off is the most entertainingly funny piece of theatre I have ever witnessed and is “arguably the funniest farce ever” (San Diego Union Tribune, 29 July 1985). I first saw Noises Off at the Brooks Atkinson Theater on Broadway in 1984 and again at a high school in the early 1990s. Both productions were thoroughly delightful. Universal comic conventions—slapstick, sight gags, double-takes, and double-entendre—make this rollicking contemporary farce unequaled in its ability to entertain audiences.

The Utah Shakespeare Festival will continue its time-honored tradition of presenting only the best of classical and contemporary theatre masterpieces when Noises Off premieres this summer. Festival audiences will want to include this play among their selections; indeed, many of us will want to make more than one trip to Cedar City this summer, especially after seeing Noises Off. Don’t be surprised to find fellow audience members who have already seen the show, in spite of warnings that “this show could be hazardous to one’s health. Too much laughter is debilitating” (Los Angeles theatre critic Weldon Jones, 1985).

Playwright Michael Frayn (born in 1933) has produced a wide variety of successful works, including several novels, a book of philosophy, film and television scripts, newspaper columns, and plays. Orphaned as a young boy, Frayn spent a difficult childhood near London and later served in the Royal Intelligence Corps as an interpreter of Russian. He earned a B.A. in philosophy, and spent many years as a newspaper columnist, where he honed his talent for satire and parody. He once told an interviewer that “comedy is about the grimness of the world. It’s one way of looking at pain and difficulty” (Current Biography, 1985). Two London theatre groups awarded Frayn “Best Comedy” in 1982 for Noises Off. The play moved to Broadway in 1983, where one critic wrote, “I doubt whether Frayn has written anything else as funny, but then, very few people have” (ibid).

The Utah Shakespeare Festival has produced several farces, including Blithe Spirit, You Can’t Take It with You, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and Charley’s Aunt. Festival management knows that audiences love a good farce. Farce began with the Greeks as a “low” form of comedy, or that which appealed to members of the lower classes. It was assumed they could only find humor in clowning, practical jokes, and broad physical pranks. As comedy became more refined, more intellectual, plays were built around character, dialogue, or situations. Noises Off is built around all three! Farces often include screen scenes—behind doors, inside closets, or behind screens. Noises Off includes all three!

Just what’s so funny about a play-within-a-play, which is really a farce-within-a-farce, acted by “actors acting actors acting characters”? (ibid). Just about everything. Nothing On is the farce within Noises Off.

The cast of both plays is comprised of six actors, a director, the stage manager, and an assistant stage manager. Among the nine characters are a couple of newlyweds, an oversexed realtor, an inept maid, a stumbling drunk, an aspiring young actress and her male counterpart, an intensely-neurotic theatrical director, and a distracted stage hand who falls in love with a variety of other characters. “It is not that every possible backstage disaster or onstage nightmare is covered here. . . . Instead, these are new and deviously vicious catastrophes, mounting in dread geometric progression, fueled by what may be the least compatible set of colleagues ever assembled” (Jones).

Act 1 is an embarrassing sneak-peek at the play’s final dress rehearsal, and leaves the audience certain the play will never be ready for opening night—just twelve hours off. But the introduction in Act 1 to each of the play’s characters makes for farce, the brand of comedy that mocks a never-to-be-mocked segment of society. In the case of Noises Off, the butt of the joke is the cast itself.

Act 2 takes place a month later, after the play has run four weeks. Now the audience members are transformed from viewers of a play-within-a-play to voyeurs of the cast’s backstage antics. Romances have developed between actors and stagehands, and physical pratfalls abound, the funniest of which is the sophisticated Lloyd’s fall down a flight of backstage stairs with his pants around his ankles. Those who have always wondered what goes on backstage will find Act 2 singularly enlightening, albeit exaggerated.

By Act 3, the play Nothing On has disintegrated into “a shambles, sabotaged by the cast and mostly ad-libbed” (United Press International theatre critic Frederick M. Winship, 1983). The actors can be seen once again on the set of the aging production, and the audience is hearing the same lines from Acts 1 and 2 reiterated to newly-choreographed antics by the apathetic actors. Meanwhile, the Noises Off audience has been entertained as much by the story and characters of one play as it has laughed itself silly over the story and characters of the second play. Confused? Not to worry. Good farce can be confusing, but you may take comfort in knowing that “farce is the only thespian form that requires complete surrender of the theatre-goer’s intelligence” (ibid).

There is an extra element to this production that will help you keep things straight, a secret weapon that lends an added element of zaniness to the play—the set. “The biggest star in any good production of Noises Off often is the set,” moving the cast of nine in and out of eight doors “like figures on a Swiss clock” (ibid). A staircase becomes a sort of throne for the unimaginative ingenue, Brook, who can make no adjustments to the foibles of the other actors. Even the telephone cords and bathroom doors draw laughter. Are you beginning to get the picture?

Brook deserves more commentary; she gives new meaning to the euphemism “airhead.” Her straight lines elicit gales of laughter. Why? Bad timing, and her timing gets increasingly worse as the play progresses.

An actor-friend of mine once told me about the fairy godmother of theatre, who, like Cinderella’s, grants wishes to actors. If the fairy godmother of theatre were to grant me one wish, I would ask to play Dotty Otley, the bumbling maid in Noises Off whose task of serving a tray of sardines becomes a virtual quest to keep track of the thing. In fact, the more I think about Dotty and my fairy godmother, the more I wish—

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