★★★★ | Noises Off, National Tour

If someone had told me that I would sit through the first act of the same play three times in the same evening and actually enjoy it, I thought I would be laughing at them, not with them.

But this cleverly written play, produced for this national tour by The Old Vic Theatre, amounted to a hilarious and thoroughly entertaining evening at the theatre.

In Michael Frayn’s classic comedy, a group of actors initially find themselves rehearsing Act One of a play, “Nothing On” in the small frantic hours before the opening night of a regional tour. Nothing is ready, the cast don’t know their lines, there is a significant problem with the sardines and the director, Lloyd Dallas, is becoming increasingly agitated and frustrated at the lack of progress. The relationships between the actors become strained when their backstage shenanigans start to interfere with their professional integrity.

Fast forward to the middle of the tour. Life on the road is taking its toll on the company and what we see is the view from backstage, as the cast perform Act One of “Nothing On” to an eager audience of pensioners and as jealously, rivalry and a quickly disappearing bottle of whiskey backstage all contribute to the sabotaging of each other’s performances whilst keeping the ‘noises off’ the main stage.

The final scene is once again viewed from the auditorium, where the cast, on the last performance of the tour, perform Act One of “Nothing On” with a complete lack of enthusiasm, damaged props, an almost total disregard of the script and a ridiculous amount of improvisation as the performance spirals out of control.This incredibly cleverly written play was great fun. The first act centred on the rehearsal of a play within the play. The audience were treated to watching and engaging in the story and characters of the fictional play being rehearsed, which was actually a funny and traditional farce, with a story you could follow, plenty of well-timed entrances and exits and which was very much in keeping with the spirit of the genre. However, the parallel narrative of the lives, loves and inabilities of the cast and crew was equally engaging and sharply written. The interchange between the two stories was seamless as the audience switched between the two narratives with ease. Utilising the theatre as part of the set (by having the director try his best to control the stage from amongst the audience in the stalls) was a brilliant move, as it really drew in the audience, making them feel like part of the company.

The backstage section was absolute comic genius and it is almost worth seeing the play for this section alone. This part of the play was virtually silent, as the now familiar story of “Nothing On” was being performed on stage whilst the company was falling apart off stage. The cast appeared and disappeared through various doors as the play continued whilst the crew physically fought, tied each other’s shoelaces together, hid items from each other and join forces to prevent one cast member from getting drunk. What followed was 30 minutes of simply brilliant, fast paced and perfectly directed and choreographed physical comedy. It was clear that the cast (and the director, Lindsay Posner) had worked very hard to achieve such impeccable comic timing and it was one of the finest pieces of stage comedy I have seen in a long time.

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The final section transported the audience back to sitting in front of the stage, where at the end of the run, the company and the play is falling apart. Wobbly scenery, failing props and stage fatigue all contribute to the increasingly crumbling performance. Whilst this section was enjoyable, it was here, where, after such an impressive second act, the final act paled slightly and the joke started to stretch a little compared to what had come before it, but to be fair, the second part was a very difficult act to follow.

The cast were all first-rate, and as previously mentioned, had clearly worked incredibly hard to perform as they did. Neil Pearson was excellent as Lloyd Dallas, the frustrated director. You could feel his pain as he tried desperately to hold things together just before opening night. Maureen Beattie’s turn as Dotty Otley was also a particular pleasure. Her character could almost be a forerunner for Mrs Overall in Acorn Antiques or Mrs Doyle in Father Ted and not only was Beattie’s stage presence noticeable; her comic performance was on a par with Julie Walters performance as the aforementioned Mrs O. The very handsome Simon Bubb put in an incredibly good performance as the hapless and downtrodden Tim, a stagehand, understudy and general dogsbody. Bubb subtly generated a character that you couldn’t help but easily warm to and empathise with. The remaining cast were all incredibly good and there was no weak link in them, each of them, in their own way, deserving a specific mention. The relatively simple set was well utilised and the play as a whole had a good balance between sharp yet warm writing, likeable characters and hysterical physical comedy.

The show was written in 1982 yet didn’t feel dated at all, giving off a real feel of a mixture of both the early Channel 4 (slightly anarchic) comedies such as “The Comic Strip” coupled with the charm of the 70’s sitcoms such as The Good Life, George and Mildred and Some Mother’s Do ‘Ave ‘Em. Noises Off had an infectious, almost naive allure which was positively delightful.
Noises Off is currently playing at the Sheffield Lyceum Theatre before continuing its national tour.