Noises Off gives feeling of deja vu

Noises Off is a play within a play - more than that it is a play about actors and the pressures of a long theatrical tour.

Noises Off gives feeling of deja vu


Noises Off is a play within a play - more than that it is a play about actors and the pressures of a long theatrical tour. It's a scenario which both players and audiences can recognise which accounts for its continued popularity - along with Frayn's brilliantly composed comic dialogue and hysterical action as the production gradually descends into chaos.

Although exaggerated for comic effect, Noises Off gains its strength from the fact that its inspiration was drawn from life. The first glimmerings of an idea for a play appeared in Michael Frayn's mind as he stood backstage watching a play called Chinamen, a farce he had written for Lynn Redgrave.

As Frayn watched the backstage chaos, he realised that the action behind the curtain was far more entertaining than anything going on in front of it and realised that one day he must write a behind-the-scenes farce.

The fact that Frayn wrote a classic was helped by the fact that both actors and audiences recognise the conventions and the realities that he brings into the story.

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The play is a favourite of Peter Rowe, artistic director at the New Wolsey Theatre, who enjoyed it so much when he originally staged it ten years ago at another theatre that he is delighted to revive it in Ipswich.

“It's just a brilliant play. It's hysterically funny and it's the only show I have known reduce audiences to helpless laughter from beginning to end. Michael Frayn has structured it brilliantly, because the whole thing, just builds and builds and he takes the audience with him. It's very rare to get a play which doesn't have a part where the action sags. This careers along until the final curtain.”

This is an opinion shared by the actors. Jemma Churchill said: “There is a saying that if the cast are still laughing by the time the dress rehearsal comes along then, it isn't funny.” The belief is that the laughter comes from private jokes and in-jokes among the cast which will be lost on a audience. “But Noises Off is the exception that proves the rule.”

The play features Wolsey favourite Rosie Ashe as Dotty Otley who played the same role in Peter Rowe's last production and says she jumped at the chance to revisit the part. “The last time we did it it was such a huge success and such enormous fun to do I didn't hesitate for a second when Peter asked if I wanted to do it again.

“I remember Peter sitting there towards the end of the rehearsal period, when we all knew the play backwards and had done it so many times that he should have been thoroughly sick of it, but I looked at him and he had tears of laughter rolling down his cheeks. It's that sort of play. It's thoroughly infectious.”

Although there is chaos on stage, actor Robin Kermode points out that it's the result of a lot of well-disciplined rehearsals. “It's rather like being a comedy trapeze artist. You have got to be a bloody good trapeze artist in order to do it badly and make it look funny. Whereas a genuinely trapeze artist would fall off but it wouldn't be funny. The same with being a magician. Look at Tommy Cooper. He was a fantastically talented magician but he had to be to make his tricks go wrong and allow the audience to laugh at them. Then, of course, he would do something extraordinary.

“So the same rules apply to acting. If you are acting badly then there is a lot of rehearsal required to make it funny. Also with Noises Off you are on the go all the time. It has a tremendous zip to it and has to, in order for it to work.”

He said the other challenge that Noises Off has is the fact that it is a play within a play. They are actors, playing actors who are playing parts in a fictional farce called Nothing On, some of which the audience sees. “So it does strange things to you head sometimes trying to work out who exactly you are meant to be,” says Robin.

“It reminds me of the time I was playing in The Importance of Being Earnest in the West End with Hinge and Brackett. The rehearsals were weird because they were two guys in T-shirts who would be become Hinge and Brackett on stage who would in turn be playing Gwendoline and Cecily in the play and then Lady Bracknell and Miss Prism. The layers of playing were very weird.”

Rosemary Ashe commented that you had to be careful when playing parts within parts because there was the temptation to give a nod and wink to the audience which could break the spell. “I remember seeing Barry Humphries playing Fagin in Oliver and although he was very good, there was a moment when he was taking the treasure chest out from under the floorboards, and he holds up a large diamante ear-ring and he can't resist putting it on. It was a nod to the audience that this was Barry Humphries who plays Dame Edna Everidge.”

Jemma said that one of the joys of playing in Noises Off was that it gave you a unique opportunity to be a bad actor. “It's a great liberation. We spend so much time trying to be truthful and eliminate mannerisms or correct bad habits, so for me this has been a fantastic opportunity just to let myself run riot.”

Jemma then leans forward in a conspiratorial manner and with a mischievous glint in her eye. “It gives you permission to recreate all those traits that you have watched and despised in other people and put them together in one awful character. I have found myself taking a little but of him, a little bit of her, a little bit of someone else and just creating this dreadful actor out of a number of real people who have caused me grief over the years.”

Rosemary added, with a laugh, that it was also a wonderful opportunity to indulge in and acknowledge you own bad habits. “I have managed to have a whole career of being loud and unsubtle, so I had bags of material to work with.”

Peter Rowe said that the play within a play is called Nothing On - a No Sex Please We're British style farce - which the Wolsey company rehearsed as a play in its own right before doing the other acts. The first act is seemingly a performance of Nothing On. The second act is several weeks later and is a performance of Nothing On seen from backstage while act three is set on the final night of the tour and is played in front of an audience again but the chaos has moved from behind the curtain to on stage.

“One of the weird things about the process of rehearsal is that it sort of mirrors the events in the play. There are several moments in the play where an actress says I'm sorry I don't understand my motivation for doing this. It's a surreal world where what you are doing and what you are holding up a mirror to are exactly the same thing.”

He said for an audience part of the joy of watching Noises Off was seeing what goes on backstage - getting to see what they normally don't see. Although Rosemary Ashe did add the rider: “Although it is exaggerated for comic effect - but only just.”

Noises Off by Michael Frayn is at the New Wolsey Theatre from February 19-March 13. Tickets are available online at or by ringing 01473 295900.

Michael Frayn's hectic farce Noises Off is a favourite with both actors and audiences. Andrew Clarke speaks to the New Wolsey cast to find out how true to life it really is.

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