Noises Off, a British farce about putting on a farce, provides humorous insight into the onstage and offstage challenges of producing a play. What’s a farce? Noises Off is a superb example: a high-energy comedic romp involving highly improbable events, impeccable timing, misunderstandings and mistaken identities.Read more
On my first trip to London in the early ‘80s, we went to the half-price ticket booth and chose a play we’d never heard of,Noises Off. We could only afford the cheapest seats, which turned out to be on the side of the second balcony.
Instead of regular theater seats, these were small planks of wood on springs, like the jump seats used by flight attendants. I balanced miserably on my tiny board, feeling the injustice of my poverty. Then the curtain rose, and I started to laugh a little, then a lot, then so hard that I literally fell off my precarious perch and smacked my forehead on the seat in front of me.
Two hours later, I left the theater with a lump on my head and stomach muscles so sore from laughing that I could barely stand up. I looked like I’d been in a fight, but I felt like I’d witnessed magic. It remains one of the top theater experiences of my life.
It is fitting that I was in pain after seeing my first Noises Off, since many of the phrases we use to describe comedy have an association with violence or death: busting a gut, dying laughing, laughing your head off, splitting your sides. After a good show, comedians will say “I killed them!” and after a bad one, “I died out there!” But for all this language of carnage, it’s essential that the audience always knows that nothing real or permanent will go wrong.
Unlike the current glut of YouTube videos, which feature real people hurting themselves and produce a laugh but then a feeling of shame in the viewer, well-crafted comedy gives us guilt-free access to mayhem.
I’m sure there are many psychological reasons we enjoy watching people fall down stairs, trip over furniture, slam fingers in doors. Perhaps it’s a way of managing repressed anger or maybe just good old schadenfreude. Whatever the reasons, Michael Frayn absolutely understands and embraces this human need in Noises Off. These hapless characters are up to their eyeballs in pain as they navigate a terrible play with a dreadful company. They emotionally, physically and psychologically batter each other for three hilarious acts and somehow manage to inflict no real wounds.
I was a young, inexperienced director when I first saw Noises Off, and I was dying to get my hands on this wonderful play. But I also wondered how on earth it could be staged. Each time I’ve seen a production in the decades since, I’ve wondered the same thing. I’m a lot older and more experienced now, and as I write this, four months before our first rehearsal, I’m still wondering! Like all farce, Noises Off relies on split-second timing and a cast that can flawlessly create controlled chaos night after night. And they need to survive it! If this play could inflict such damage on someone sitting safely in the second balcony, what might it do to the cast?
— Lynne Collins, Director
Send a fourth-rate acting company on tour to perform an atrocious bedroom “comedy” — featuring gratuitous lingerie, uncooperative props, and a painful lack of talent — and what do you get? In the case of Michael Frayn’s classic play-within-a-play comedy, Noises Off, more laughter than you can shake a sardine at. As the company stumbles and fumbles through three progressively chaotic performances of “Nothing On,” you’ll see the players reveal themselves in all their bumbling, slapstick glory from onstage and backstage, as both ridiculous characters and inept performers.
The play opens at the dress rehearsal of Nothing On, a British sex farce. Mrs. Clackett (played by character Dotty Otley), a housekeeper, struggles to remember her stage business and the rehearsal is interrupted by instructions from the director, Lloyd Dallas. A real estate agent, Roger (Garry Lejeune), arrives with a beautiful young woman he hopes to seduce. He and Vicki (Brooke Ashton) expect to be alone but are surprised to find Mrs. Clackett. Philip (Frederick Fellowes) and Flavia (Belinda Blair), the real owners of the house arrive home unexpectedly and chaos ensues. With the production opening the next night, the cast and crew are struggling to complete their final run-through, but are delayed when Selsdon, an elderly alcoholic, goes missing. Tempers flare as the rehearsal moves along slowly and the act ends with a surprising discovery.
Act II starts moments before a matinee performance of Nothing On. This act is seen from backstage, and Poppy, the Assistant stage Manager, and Tim, the Stage Manager, frantically try to get the show started. Complicating matters, Garry and Frederick bicker over the affections of Dotty, while Brooke, suffering from nervous exhaustion, has locked herself in her dressing room. Lloyd arrives from London in an attempt to calm Brooke. The play begins, but the antics of the cast quickly boil over into onstage high jinks and offstage shenanigans. The act concludes with a shocking announcement from Poppy.
With the production now near the end of its ten-week run, Act III is a performance at the Municipal Theatre, Stockton-on-Tees. The escalating tempers and conflicts from Act II are now in full-blown pandemonium. Tim struggles to get the curtain up on time, while Belinda can be heard shouting audibly backstage. Belinda and Dotty’s row is played out onstage and Dotty struggles to execute any of Mrs. Clackett’s stage directions. The performance proceeds with increasingly more mistakes and cast members attempt to cover for each other. Numerous door handles are broken, Frederick suffers a painful fall, and sardines are thrown everywhere. In the midst of this mass confusion, the actors and their director struggle to bring the play to some sort — any sort — of happy ending.
Playwrights have utilized the dramatic device of a “play within a play” throughout the history of the theatre.
Although countless writers, from Aristophanes to Heiner Muller, have employed this dramatic convention, Shakespeare seems especially fond of plays-within-plays —most notably in Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Nearly all of Shakespeare’sThe Taming of the Shrew is a play within a play, staged to entertain the intoxicated Christopher Sly, and Shrew also provides the play within a play for Cole Porter’s Tony-Award winning musical Kiss Me Kate.
This is undoubtedly a popular device in the theatre, but why? What is it about this dramatic technique that intrigues playwrights and audiences?
First of all, the convention gives audience members insight into the making of theatre — and don’t we all want to peek behind the curtain to see what’s going on behind the scenes? The juxtaposition of two realities (onstage and off) not only produces humorous insights into the work onstage, but also empathy and sympathy for the actors’ struggles backstage.
Like the rude mechanicals’ production of Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the cast of Nothing Onstruggles to keep the performance going as accidents and mishaps ensue. Throughout the show these actors walk a tight rope between success and utter embarrassment. As an audience we feel sympathy and root for the cast of Nothing On. We’re amused by their mistakes, but we also share their anxiety about failing in front of an audience. Speaking of this phenomenon, playwright, Michael Frayn, says:
“It’s an anxiety that everyone has, that he may make a fool of himself in public, that he may not be able to maintain his persona, that the chaotic feelings inside might burst out, that the whole structure may break down. I suspect people are seeing the kind of disaster they fear may happen to them, but one that’s safely happening to these actors. They’re discharging fear and anxiety in a way that doesn’t hurt.”
Frayn’s initial inspiration for Noises Off grew out of this shared sympathy between audience and performer. Observing rehearsal for his first play, The Two of Us, the frantic nature of work backstage struck him as entertaining but also insightful.
Frayn says, “the spectacle of these two actors rushing back and forth … reflected something about the lives we all lead. We all do a desperate fixing behind the scenes in order to keep a presentable social front going to the world.”
For most of us, this desperate fixing goes unnoticed. But for the cast and crew of Nothing On it is the focus of our attention and delight. We are thrilled to watch them struggle to find success. We root for them to grab victory from the jaws of defeat, but seeing their failings makes us less anxious about our own shortcomings. Usually the release of pity and fear is associated with catharsis and tragedy. But here, according to Frayn, there is possibly a unique form of catharsis to be found in his farcical use of the play within the play.
— Greg Thorson
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