Noises Off: a play by Michael Frayn
A clever and very funny play
The device of the “play within a play” has been used many times, from Shakespeare onwards, but in Michael Frayn’s Noises Off the idea becomes central. It is not so much that “the play’s the thing” (to quote Hamlet), as that here the play is the only thing.
Michael Frayn (born 1933) has succeeded at both play and novel writing. He has also written a number of notable translations of plays by Chekhov as well as journalism for major UK newspapers.
Noises Off was written in 1982 and first performed in that year at Hammersmith’s Lyric Theatre. It then transferred to the West End and ran for five years at the Savoy. A Broadway production (at the Brooks Atkinson Theater) opened in 1983 and ran for more than 550 performances. It has had many revivals and won a host of awards. Changes have been made to the play over the years, with new scenes added and others removed, but the synopsis that follows is based on the original concept.
Noises Off concerns the staging of a typical British knockabout farce, entitled “Nothing On”, which includes all the elements to be expected of this kind of drama, such as characters rushing from room to room, people being found in embarrassing situations, trousers descending at inopportune moments, and masses of sexual innuendo. The humour of Noises Off comes partly from the ineptitudes of the fictional cast of Nothing On, and partly from the strained relationships between the cast members that meld with those of the characters they are playing. Each of the three acts concerns the same act of Nothing On, played in different places.
The first act is set in the Grand Theatre (fictional) in Weston-super-Mare (real). A dress rehearsal of Nothing On is under way and, as if often the case with a third-rate group of travelling players, just about anything that can go wrong does so. The cast includes the typical “household name” that is guaranteed to put bums on seats, in this case Dolly Otley, a TV sitcom star, who plays the “de rigueur” charlady. Also in the cast is Dolly’s real-life toyboy lover, Garry Lejeune, dumb but lovely Brook Ashton, and elderly Seldon Mowbray who plays a burglar. Seldon is over-fond of the bottle and must be kept sober at all costs. Just for good measure, the play’s director, Lloyd Douglas, is having affairs with both Brook Ashton and his assistant director, Poppy Norton-Taylor.
Frayn has great fun with the insertion of intentional errors as cues are missed and lines fluffed. Needless to say, the stage props and scenery present many problems, particularly a plate of sardines.
Act Two is set a month later, seen from behind the stage at a performance in Goole, in northern England. The backstage dramas parallel those on stage as the jealousies of the cast members become mixed up with the cast’s continued incompetence. The loss of Poppy’s contact lens presents added difficulties.
In Act Three the company has moved, two months later, to Stockton-on-Tees, another northern town. Changes have been made to the script of Nothing On, but it is now becoming virtually impossible to distinguish the play from real life. The two have merged into a surreal variant of the original, a caricature of what was, in any case, a caricature to begin with.
Noises Off is an excellently written and witty play by a master of his craft, who must be reckoned in the same league as Tom Stoppard and Alan Ayckbourn, either of whom would have been delighted to pen Noises Off. Indeed, the former’s “The Real Inspector Hound” and the latter’s “The Norman Conquests” can be seen as forebears of Noises Off. Knockabout farce of the kind that is satirized here, and which used to be the stable fare of London theatres such as the Aldwych and the Whitehall, has been shown by Frayn and others to be so “old hat” that it would be impossible to stage today.