Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre Behind the Scenes

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre Behind the Scenes

Article excerpt

Noises Off Old Vic, until 10 March

Frank Rich loved it. 'Noises Off, ' said the great N'Yawk critic, 'is, was and always will be the funniest play written in my lifetime.'

Michael Frayn conceived the idea of writing a farce about farce while watching one of his early plays from the wings. The frantic hustle-bustle of the actors behind the scenes was far funnier than anything on stage. So Frayn, the West End's brainbox-in-residence, wrote an intricate play-within-a-play where he showcased every theatrical blunder imaginable.

Just describing his amazing creation requires quite an investment of mental energy. So here goes. The inner play, Nothing On, is a traditional farce featuring three couples, each oblivious of the other two, arriving at an unoccupied mansion for a dirty weekend.

The outer play, Noises Off, begins as a lastminute rehearsal of Nothing On in which the shambolic cast make a million and one hilarious cock-ups. That's the first act.

The second act, a month later, shows us the 32nd performance of Nothing On in a small seaside town. This time we get the backstage view. The director has arrived to fine-tune his masterpiece but he ends up ruining everything by allowing an unguarded bottle of whisky to be purloined by the company juice-head. And a bouquet of flowers, intended for the leading lady, is accidentally handed to a stage manageress, which activates all kinds of romantic complications and vendettas. Frayn's orchestration of his materials is dazzlingly skilful and yet the play remains unsatisfying. Here's why.

A 'normal' farce has a central character in a terrible predicament whose embarrassments are gradually intensified. Frayn abandons this coalescent principle and sets himself a higher ideal altogether, to create a farce more farcical than the most farcical farce any previous farceur could fabricate. In theory he succeeds but in practice he can't find a decent substitute for the comic structure he has ditched - a main character and a unifying dilemma - and that failure robs Noises Off of any dramatic moment or substance.

As V.S. Pritchett observed, 'Farce is tragedy out of uniform.' The tragedy of Noises Off is that it has no tragedy whatsoever. It's a superbly handled display of agreeable silliness but it's unattached to the inner lives or sufferings of human beings. The ingenuity of the design is no recompense for the play's meagreness and lack of focus. The nine-strong cast have to play two roles each and they spend half their stage time performing lowbrow slapstick. …

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