Glorious theatrical chaos

NOISES Off by Michael Frayn, New Wolsey Theatre until March 13

PETER Rowe, the New Wolsey’s artistic director, could be described as something of an alchemist. While he may not be able to turn lead into gold he can conjure a laugh-filled triumph from a theatrical disaster.

Noises Off is the sorry tale of a third rate touring company flogging their way through a tired, old farce as it makes its way round the shires. The play within a play is called, appropriately enough, Nothing On. It’s a sex farce about tax-exiled playwrights, estate agents sleeping with pretty young women who turn out to be tax inspectors who are watched by a potty old housekeeper called Dotty, who seems to have a fixation with sardines.

It’s the sort of play that even Brian Rix would have thought twice about appearing in. Indeed it’s the sort of farce that Michael Frayn once wrote for Lynn Redgrave in the late 1960s and thought that what was happening backstage was more entertaining than what he had written for the audience, so he conjured up this sharp-edged theatrical comedy to bring to life every actors worst nightmare.

It’s a brilliant piece of comic construction, played to perfection by the New Wolsey cast. The first act is the appalling final dress rehearsal, complete with notes and interruptions from the increasingly exasperated director.

The second act, seen from backstage, is a month down the road when the inter-cast relationships are unravelling which then cause mayhem on stage before, in the third act, we witness the complete collapse of the play on its final night.

Peter Rowe’s pacing of the three acts is masterly. It builds from a slow beginning into a tumultuous crescendo of manic, comic desperation as the actors in the play within a play desperately flail about trying to keep this disaster on track. The New Wolsey audience, by this point was sending roars of laughter around the auditorium and showed their approval at two brilliantly executed bits of comic business with spontaneous rounds of applause.

Most Read

Although it was lovely to see Rosie Ashe back on the Wolsey stage, the beauty of this show was that it required an ensemble performance. If there had been a weak link in the chain then the whole show would have failed.

As it was, the evening was a first class demonstration in sustained comedy. The characters were caricatures to be sure but only two steps removed from reality. When playing farce, timing is everything and the axe routine in act two proved how well drilled and effortless their performances had become.

Noises Off is slick but not smooth. It creates its own rough edges and the proceeds to have huge fun by exaggerating them, forging them into comic gold.

It’s not often you get to see such an outstandingly funny play brought to life by such an honest cast. By the third act, their characters may be grotesques but they love them and so do the audience.

It was a real delight to revel in such comic calamity.

Andrew Clarke

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter