Cambridge Arts Theatre
25th October 2022
As anyone who sees a lot of theatre can attest to, there’s an awful lot that can go wrong with a live performance, both onstage and behind the scenes. Writer Michael Frayn discovered this back the 1970s when watching a performance of one of his own plays from the wings, realising the backstage antics were funnier than what he’d written, and so ‘Noises Off’ was born. First seen on stage back in 1982, the play became a gigantic hit both in the UK and on Broadway and has seen several revivals and tours. Now for its 40th birthday, the comedy is back on the road again prior to a West End run in 2023.
Taking a “play within a play” format, ‘Noises Off’ tells the story of the troubled production of a (deliberately terrible) farce called ‘Nothing On’. At the technical rehearsal 24 hours before opening night, the show’s exasperated director Lloyd (Alexander Hanson) does his best with the tools at his disposal, but the ramshackle bunch of actors of varying talent (and sobriety) aren’t making the process very easy. Lines are forgotten, queues are missed and entrances are mis-timed. Lloyd is pushed closer and closer to breaking point. A subsequent matinee performance (shown from backstage) reveals how tensions are fraying between the cast as chaos breaks out mid-show, before fast-forwarding 10 weeks into the show’s run and seeing the impact that working together has had on a now exhausted cast on the brink of sanity.
‘Noises Off’ was undoubtedly one of the main inspirations for Mischief Theatre’s ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ and its follow-ups, and it’s easy to see why. The situation is ripe for parody, and the comedy runs high throughout. ‘Noises Off’ is arguably more elegantly done, relying more on its script than slapstick and scenery falling down. It does still have its fair share of physical comedy, but this works better when it’s done simply, rather than the later scenes where all hell breaks loose, which begin to look overplayed, and it loses its cleverness. ‘Noises Off’ excels when it relies on its dialogue and character quirks to deliver the comedy, rather than when actors sit on a cactus or try to dodge a manically wielded pickaxe.
Director Lindsay Posner does a great job at keeping the play pacey, ensuring the characters fully use the space and keeping a great sense of movement throughout. The intricacy and timing of the choreography (directed by Ruth Cooper-Brown) is exceptional, with the cast delivering it with the smooth reliability of clockwork. One actor in the wrong place at the wrong time would throw the whole thing off, so for the cast to make it look so seamless is hugely impressive. Simon Higlett’s set design is inventive and allows for a multitude of exits and entrances, keeping the piece dynamic and engaging. The set is also rotated in the first interval to show the second act from the other side, and then again for the third act, ensuring that the play never feels static or stale.
With truly no weak links, the cast are uniformly brilliant and deliver the definition of ensemble teamwork. Each have their own moment to shine and they really do make a great team. After being somewhat short-changed in her thankless ‘Anything Goes’ role, Felicity Kendal shows what a fine comedic actress she is and is hugely entertaining as Dotty, getting ever more forgetful as the weeks drag on. Tracy-Ann Oberman shines as Belinda, being utterly captivating to watch and delivering some great physical comedy, as does Joseph Millson as Garry, fully committing to his character and also pulling off one of the best “falls down the stairs” you’ll ever see.
‘Noises Off’ will feel too wacky for some, and the farce does starts to wear thin as the play progresses, stretching to near-breaking point at times, but its cleverness and timing can’t be argued. The blueprint for today’s “….Goes Wrong” successes, ‘Noises Off’ is sharply written and brilliantly performed. It’s almost a love letter to the world of theatre, in which all of its foibles and shortcomings are lovingly pointed out and affectionately spoofed, with a good time guaranteed.
‘Noises Off’ runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday 29th October 2022 before continuing on its UK tour, prior to an engagement at London’s Phoenix Theatre in 2023.
Performance runtime 2 hours 20 minutes, including two intervals