Audiences find laughter in Noises Off

Michael Frayn's hectic farce Noises Off is a favourite with both actors and audiences.

Andrew Clarke

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

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.

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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 is 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 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.”

Robin added that a good actor can also shape the action to dictate where the laughs fall. “Obviously you can't tell an audience when to laugh and when not to but you can lead them to a certain extent. I did a television series playing Donald Sinden's son and although it was telly he and Windsor Davies tended to play it straight out to the studio audience rather like a conventional play. It was wonderful learning curve for me as a young actor. I will always remember watching Donald on the first read through marking up his script. I asked him what he was doing. He said: 'I am marking up my rounds.' I had no idea what these were and he showed me the script. He pointed out where the laughs were. He showed me how he could, with the same material, the same dialogue get titter, titter, small laugh, big laugh or small laugh, titter, big laugh and titter. He could shape the audience's reaction because as he said if the audience was laughing flat out all the time they would be utterly exhausted before the end and unable to laugh at anything.

“I think as a young actor I learnt more about playing comedy doing that show than I did in three years at drama school.”

Rosemary added that comic timing can be refined but it can't be taught. “Some people are naturally funny and what drama school does is teach you how to use your skill. How to refine it but if you haven't got comic timing you can't learn it.

“It's all about technique. There's a saying that if your technique is showing then you haven't got one. It has to look effortless, it has to look spontaneous and that is what Noises Off is all about. We have to make playing bad actors look effortless while they make heavy weather of this awful farce they are trapped in. Each performance has to be as if you are doing it for the first time. If it looks forced or if you are looking as if you are merely going through the motions then it won't be funny.”

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 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. “I've always thought that there was just as good play going on backstage as there was out front because of all the people running around changing costumes, getting props and then getting on stage just in time.

“The fun of it is that they having arguments, even physical fights but they have to keep the play going and so their disagreements end just in time to make their entrance. I always think of the staging of a play in terms of a swan elegantly making its way across a stretch of open water while out of sight its legs are paddling like fury.”

He said that in real life, good casting is essential to avoid the sort of personality clashes which dog the fictional production of Nothing On. “Casting is really important and it needs a strange kind of chemistry to work and I don't really understand it.

“We are blessed in this case that we have a company that really gets on well together. Although we are portraying a company which is falling apart it is critical for our company to really get on. Funnily enough in the end all that any of the company's that we have at the New Wolsey have in common is the fact that me as the director really like them. Perhaps there is something in the fact that if I like them as performers then they will get on together, I don't know. That's the only way of explaining the chemistry that I know.”

Robin said that it was an important that there was a good feeling within a company. “I have been in shows where there were some stars who didn't like anyone else getting laughs but them and they would do a tap dance or a piece of business to distract the audience during your funny laughs and quite frankly that gets a bit boring after a while. It's all them, them, them and you find the company falling apart.”

Jemma added: “There is a honeymoon period where you are all finding out about one another and people you have in common: 'Oh you know so and so' - it's a lovely time and there's nothing quite like and you rely on these people for your life as the opening night approaches.” Rosemary pointed out that it is easy for form relationships in this heightened atmosphere. “It can seem very exciting and everyone feels very close which is why you can end up sleeping with someone in the company but when it goes wrong then you have a show like the one we see in Noises Off.”

Peter said that for all the truthfulness contained in the story, the play is about laughter and that needs a disciplined approach in the rehearsal room. But, even after the hard work in rehearsal, the dynamics that shape a performance change when it finally goes before an audience. He said that rehearsals involve split second timing which allow for the action to move along swiftly but has to be flexible for the actors to pause to allow for laughs on stage.

“When we get in front of an audience the performance does have to adjust and hopefully to allow room for it to settle while giving the actors the necessary information for them to pick up the cues. I think with any comedy you do know where the big laughs will come and the rest is a case of fine-tuning. Finding space for an audience to react while maintaining the pace is part of the trick that we have to master once we are in front an audience.”

So has he ever had a cast that was as difficult as the one in Noises Off? He laughs: “No, fortunately most of my casts over the years have been very good. I have had the odd actor who had trouble remembering their lines or liked a tipple or two quite early in the day. I think the strength of Noises Off is that it compresses all those nightmare moments, that we have all had, and nightmare characters, that we have all met, into two hours. I think we can relate to everything in it but I don't think that I have ever had all those things happen together in one company and all in the same show. Not yet anyway.”

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.

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