Colchester Mercury has all-star cast for the ‘funniest play ever’

Louise Jameson, Hywel Simons and Sarah Jayne Dunn in rehearsal for Colchester Mercury's production o

Louise Jameson, Hywel Simons and Sarah Jayne Dunn in rehearsal for Colchester Mercury's production of Michael Frayn's classic farce Noises Off - Credit: Archant

Michael Frayn’s 1982 farce Noises Off, which made its debut at London’s Savoy Theatre, in The Strand, has on more than one occasion been described as the funniest play ever written.

Sara Crowe and Hywel Simons who plays Lloyd Dallas in rehearsal for Colchester Mercury's production

Sara Crowe and Hywel Simons who plays Lloyd Dallas in rehearsal for Colchester Mercury's production of Michael Frayn's classic farce Noises Off - Credit: Archant

The structure of the play is unusual in that it has two intervals and what we see is the same play performed three times from different perspectives, both in front of the curtain and backstage, and in an increasingly frantic manner.

The secret of the comedy is the sense of hysteria that builds during the course of the play. The fact the audience knows what’s coming next is an important factor in the laughter because not everything goes according to plan.

Daniel Buckroyd, the artistic director of Colchester’s Mercury theatre, is reviving the fast-paced show with an all-star cast that features Louise Jameson, who has been a regular TV performer in Dr Who, Bergerac, Tenko and EastEnders; Sara Crowe, who gained iconic status in the much-quoted Philadelphia ads in the 1990s, mixes theatre with film, television and writing having just penned her first novel Campari For Breakfast; Peter Ellis who was a regular in The Bill playing Ch Sup Brownlow for 28 years; while Louis Tamone will join his Hollyoaks co-star Sarah Jayne Dunn on stage. Dunn, who is best known for playing Mandy in Hollyoaks, has just finished the UK tour of the award-winning stage adaptation of Birdsong.

The inspiration for Noises Off came from a real-life incident when Frayn was watching backstage The Two of Us, a play he had written for actress Lynn Redgrave.

Louise Jameson and David Shelley who plays Frederick Fellowes in rehearsal for Colchester Mercury's

Louise Jameson and David Shelley who plays Frederick Fellowes in rehearsal for Colchester Mercury's production of Michael Frayn's classic farce Noises Off - Credit: Archant


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He told interviewers at the time that what was happening backstage was much funnier than anything that was being performed for the audience and at that moment knew he had to write a play in which the action happened behind the scenes rather than in front of the curtain.

The fact that the action is based on a real incident and the characters in the play display recognisable traits that fellow actors will latch onto gives the play that ring of truth which transmits itself to the audience.

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“This is why it is such a funny play and why it remains an audience favourite,” says Daniel. “Everything is heightened for comic effect but there is an underlying truth which is very well observed.

“It’s rooted in the world of the theatre and the intense, hot-house environment that actors work in and if relationships go wrong then all hell can break loose.” He said it had been an ambition of his to direct a production for some while and when he re-read the play last year, it struck him that it was just so funny and remained so fresh on the page that he knew that it would be a perfect choice for the spring season.

Rehearsals for Colchester Mercury's production of Michael Frayn's classic farce Noises Off

Rehearsals for Colchester Mercury's production of Michael Frayn's classic farce Noises Off - Credit: Archant

“I was looking for something that would give audiences a great time and I’m happy to say that rehearsals have been a hoot.”

Although much of the laughter comes from the fact that during a long run relations between cast members are breaking down and becoming increasingly bitter, Daniel says that, fortunately, he has never been part of a production where communication has broken down to such an extent where sabotage has replaced dialogue cues.

“Although, there are moments and character types that we all recognise I have never known of anything quite this extreme and I hope that what happens onstage in this show won’t be repeated backstage for real.

“In fact I know it won’t because we have a fantastic company who really get on and are enjoying the physicality of the comedy.

Louise Jameson as Dotty Otley and Sara Crowe as Belinda Blair in rehearsal for Colchester Mercury's

Louise Jameson as Dotty Otley and Sara Crowe as Belinda Blair in rehearsal for Colchester Mercury's production of Michael Frayn's classic farce Noises Off - Credit: Archant

“Having said that, having spent years in this industry I know that relationships are formed are formed so quickly when you are creating a show and everything is intensified and, yes, you do get relationships which are formed and then break apart during the course of a run and you get stuff that goes wrong technically – this isn’t the case at the Mercury – but you do get productions which aren’t supported well enough technically so things can go quiet spectacularly wrong.

“I think what Michael Frayn does quite brilliantly is to put all of those truths, which for most of us only crop up occasionally and only one at a time, and to bring them all together into one supernova of disaster.

“Even though what happens feels quite extreme, it still feels rooted in truth. If it didn’t then we wouldn’t give a damn and equally for an audience who don’t know the mechanics of what goes on backstage it feels plausible for that reason. Also, it joyously lays out and celebrate the pleasures and pains of putting a show on.”

He said the ring of truth must come from Michael Frayn not only mining his own experiences but also distilling stories that circulate within the industry about some of the theatre world’s greatest disasters. “Everybody has stories about disastrous shows they have been involved in and they get expanded on each re-telling so Michael must have tapped into some of those.” He said that there is something endlessly fascinating about getting a peak backstage at a theatre, getting a glimpse of the magic – or in this case the disaster – that lurks in the wings.

Sarah Jayne Dunn who plays Brooke Ashton in rehearsal for Colchester Mercury's production of Michae

Sarah Jayne Dunn who plays Brooke Ashton in rehearsal for Colchester Mercury's production of Michael Frayn's classic farce Noises Off - Credit: Archant

“An example of what a joy it is can be found in the stage directions which are absolutely hilarious. As you know Noises Off is one of those rare plays with two intervals and in the stage directions Michael writes: ‘There is an interval between act one and act one but not between act one and act one’ which looks totally confusing at first but reading the play you know what he means. He’s such a clever guy and the play is an absolute joy and I think everyone in the cast has said that they have waited years to do this because it is on every actor’s bucket list.”

Noises Off by Michael Frayn runs at the Colchester Mercury Theatre until May 16.

Timing Is Everything

Hywel Simons, Dan Cohen with director Daniel Buckroyd in rehearsal for Colchester Mercury's producti

Hywel Simons, Dan Cohen with director Daniel Buckroyd in rehearsal for Colchester Mercury's production of Michael Frayn's classic farce Noises Off - Credit: Archant

It is not unkind to call both Louise Jameson and Sara Crowe veteran actors because as they say themselves they started very young. But, both leapt at the chance to appear in Noises Off because it rang so many bells for them.

Louise said: “This is so well observed. My character has a line where she says: ‘I was with this man in weekly rep in Peebles,’ whereas I was in fortnightly rep in St Andrews, so I know exactly where my character is coming from.

“Michael Frayn always knows precisely who he is writing about. There are types of people in the play who we all recognise. There’s the actor that always apologises: ‘I am so stupid at opening doors, can you help me?’ People say that. I’m thinking: ‘Of course you can open a door don’t be so stupid.”

Sara adds: “It’s just a way of drawing attention to yourself and saying: ‘Oh look at me I’m so modest. I’m pretending to be rubbish.’ Like Louise I recognise so many different types of people in this and I can see different people from different companies and tours that I have been in over the years.”

They both say that there is a honeymoon period at the start of rehearsals where everyone is sizing everyone up and by and large most companies work very well together but occasionally there is an actor who is very needy.

Louise adds: “They used to wind me up. I used to get so cross, not necessarily just with them, but with myself for always getting sucked in. One of the benefits of being an experienced actor is that I can now spot them very quickly in the first days of rehearsal and I just duck and side-step it. I don’t let myself get drawn in any more.”

She said that while you are rehearsing and performing in a play you see more of your co-stars than you do your family. “Everything is very intense so relationships can become strained but they rarely go as wrong as they do in the play. I can honestly say that after 45 years there are only two people I wouldn’t want to work with again and I think that’s pretty fantastic.”

Sara said that she hasn’t been as lucky as Louise and has been part of a company, which she understandably declined to name, where two actors were having severe relationship problems. “It wasn’t quite as bad as Noises Off but it was getting there. This pair were no longer getting on and their relationship breakdown was coming onto the stage which made things very difficult. It was very transparent, at least to me, and at times made things very comical. Also it is very stressful being attached to this machine that produces eight performances a week particularly if you can’t keep your off-stage life, off-stage.

“I think Michael Frayn has been so clever in the way he has portrayed the relationships crumbling because that is so accurate.”

Both said that they enjoyed the challenges of acting in a farce which utilises a different set of skills. Sara said that she found it rather like learning choreography for a dance. “If you watch us in rehearsal we are all counting like mad because the timing has to be spot on. It’s everyone dashing here and there, coming and going through doors and it’s all timed. Normally you are getting into the character’s head, building up a personality, learning the lines and then you worry about the moves. With farce it’s the other way round. You have still got to worry about characterisation but that comes after you’ve got the timing right.”

For Louise, landing the role of Dotty Otley is a double dream come true because she gets to work with a friend and get to play a role she adored when she saw the original production in the 1980s.

“One of the reasons I’m so thrilled to be involved in this production is because my friend Tracey Childs is now so involved with the Mercury Theatre in her role as producer.

“Also I remember seeing the original West End production and wishing it would stop because my sides were literally aching with laughter. Word is, audiences love it far more than actors, due to the very specific nature of the timing. So here I have a challenge, a friend, a brilliant script and a new adventure. Hurrah!”

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