By Michael Frayn
Birmingham Rep

Over a period of 33 years I’ve seen four different productions of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off. Each time I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s one of the finest comedies of the 20th century. The current version at Birmingham Rep gives me no reason to change my mind.

In truth I don’t think any professional company would dare to take on Frayn’s opus without putting absolutely everything into it. It’s not a show you can treat half-heartedly, unlike the cast of the fictional Nothing On, the play within a play around which Noises Off is based.

One of the ways of measuring the success of a farce is timing. Doors open and shut quickly, characters enter and exit at exactly the right time – everything has to run with the regularity of a metronome. Director Lindsay Posner who was at the helm of the show when it returned to the West End earlier in 2023 gets it spot on.

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Frayn’s classic comedy, Noises Off is going on a 14-venue tour starting in Birmingham. If the reaction of the press night audience at the Rep is anything to go by, theatres in England and Scotland are in for a treat.

Liza Goddard (Dotty Otley), Dan Fredenburgh (Garry Lejeune) and Simon Coates (Frederick Fellowes). Top: Lucy Robinson (Belinda Blair), Matthew Kelly (Selsdon Mowbray), Nikhita Lesler (Poppy Norton-Taylor) and Simon Coates (Frederick Fellowes) [images: Pamela Raith]

Frayn conceived the idea while watching from the wings a performance of one of his earlier farces. He thought it was funnier seeing it from behind than in front.

Noises Off follows the antics of a touring theatre company as they muddle their way through a shambolic rehearsal to a disastrous matinee seen from backstage before their final catastrophic performance when relationships between the actors have disintegrated beyond repair. Frayn’s genius means Noises Off can be enjoyed by those with no experience of acting as well as thespians who can see their worst nightmares coming to life before them.

Over the years a succession of stars have appeared in Noises Off. Here Matthew Kelly who was in the West End cast delightfully reprises his role as alcoholic, unreliable yet likeable Selsdon Mowbray who is often in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Liza Goddard brings freshness to the role of Dotty Otley, the housekeeper who forgets her lines and constantly needs to be reminded whether to take a plate of sardines off with her or leave them on the set.

Simon Shepherd revels in the part of Lloyd Dallas, the director of Nothing On. His brusqueness with his cast is explained by his amorous experiences with more than one actor which leads to resentment and even hostility in the hilarious second act.

The cast of Noises Off

There are excellent contributions from the rest of the cast. Dan Fredenburgh as randy estate agent Garry Lejeune raises a laugh whether he’s having problems with non-opening doors or speaking in incomplete sentences. Lisa Ambalavanar is deliciously over the top as scantily clad Brooke Ashton who loses her contact lenses as easily as her inhibitions.

Simon Coates is endearing as Frederick Fellowes, the actor who questions everything and has a funny turn whenever he sees blood while Lucy Robinson as Belinda Blair is the steadying influence who tries to restore calm.

Daniel Rainford gains empathy as Tim Allgood, the badly treated backstage worker who is required to exceed his job description, as does Nikhita Lesler as Poppy Norton-Taylor, the stage manager who eventually gives in to her own problems after heroically holding the show together for so long.

If you’ve got nothing on, go to see Noises Off. And if you have got something on, make time to see it anyway.

* This review originally appeared on the British Theatre Guide website


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