Norwich: Michael Frayn and Neil Pearson talk Noises Off

Neil Pearson as Lloyd Dallas in Noises Off at the Norwich Theatre Royal. Pictures: Johan Persson

Neil Pearson as Lloyd Dallas in Noises Off at the Norwich Theatre Royal. Pictures: Johan Persson - Credit: Archant

The Old Vic and West End smash hit Noises Off is on its way to Norwich Theatre Royal. Boasting a strong cast headed by Neil Pearson, it follows the backstage antics of a shambolic theatre company. Al Senter met up with Pearson and the play’s award-winning writer Michael Frayn.

The cast of classic farce Noises Off

The cast of classic farce Noises Off - Credit: Archant

Having seen the original staging of Noises Off in 1982 and then caught this production when it opened at London’s Old Vic Theatre, Pearson should have known better. He must have been well aware of what he was getting into when agreeing to play Lloyd, the hard-pressed director of Nothing On, the tacky farce at the heart of Noises Off. He’s clearly not a man to shirk a challenge, although at the half-way point in a four-week rehearsal period he was wondering why he wasn’t spending more time with his collection of much-prized rare books instead.

Chris Larkin as Frederick Fellowes

Chris Larkin as Frederick Fellowes - Credit: Archant

“I think it’s fair to say the more impossible a farce is to do, the better it is. You normally have four weeks’ rehearsal to put on a play and during that time you hope to progress from zero to ten. It’s an incremental process,” says Pearson, who was educated at Suffolk boarding school Woolverstone Hall.

Maureen Beattie as Dotty Otley

Maureen Beattie as Dotty Otley - Credit: Archant

“After two-and-a-half weeks, we all feel we are still at nought and panic is setting in. Noises Off is less a piece of theatre than a magic act which you have to learn. It’s plate-spinning and there’s quite a lot of broken crockery lying on the floor of the rehearsal-room at the moment.”

Pearson is a keen admirer of the work of Michael Frayn.

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“Anyone who has written a play of the stature of Noises Off can die happy,” he says. “Anyone, like Michael, who has written a play as great as Copenhagen as well as Noises Off is a very special breed. The point about the play is it’s put together by a scientific mind. It’s a farce about a farce that has been constructed with consummate accuracy.”

When an actor plays a director he could be forgiven for settling a few scores in his interpretation of the character. If he is including aspects of real-life directors with whom he’s had dealings, he is keeping diplomatically mum about their identities.

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“I better not answer that question: otherwise I’ll never work again,” says Pearson wryly.

How accurate a picture does Noises Off - which follows the backstage antics of a touring theatre company as they stumble their way through rehearsals, from a shambolic first night in Weston–super-Mare to a final disastrous performance in Stockton-on-Tees - give of the trials involved in putting on a piece of live theatre?

“I think that Michael must have sat in the stalls many times and watched what was happening in rehearsals on stage because he’s missed nothing. Noises Off very faithfully reproduces that atmosphere of bonhomie and wide-eyed panic that permeates most theatres. It’s very close to what it must feel like to put on some play that nobody’s proud of in a theatre that is more used to hosting tribute bands.”

Has Pearson ever found himself in something akin to Nothing On?

“No, but I do have a soft spot for that kind of material which would invariably be played by actors wearing cravats and driving sports cars. It’s a Dick Emery world, with full-breasted ingenues, a world that was essentially innocent.”

Noises Off can also be seen as something of a tribute to the game spirit of actors, whose courage and ingenuity is often tested in their struggle to find coherence and truth in the most unrewarding of scripts.

“You simply do the job which you’ve already said you were going to do,” he argues. “People often seem very impressed with what actors go through but I don’t know how steeplejacks or stuntmen do their work. I’m never been particularly vocational in my attitude to acting. However, I’ve been lucky enough, I suppose, to have had the kind of success that immunises me to a certain extent from the need to be always in work.”

Such a positive outcome has been due to Pearson’s sustained career in theatre and television, from his breakthrough roles in Drop The Dead Donkey and Between The Lines to ITV’s recent Monroe and West End appearances in plays by Stoppard, Frayn and Patrick Marber.

At the same time, he has distinguished himself in another world as a successful book-dealer and a biographer of Jack Kahane, an avant-garde publisher in Paris between the wars.

“I don’t think of my career as a journey, as a progress from A to B. I am aware of how fortunate I’ve been but I’ve never been an empire-builder, as some actors are, and I don’t believe that ambition is the key to happiness. Everybody told me when I left Central it was impossible to make a living from acting but for me, at least, it’s been mission accomplished.”

Pearson argues that he is very happy with what he’s achieved and is relieved to have survived the media scrutiny that accompanied his emergence, especially in Between The Lines.

“It was annoying at first and then baffling and I’m not sorry to see that go.”

He ascribes part of his success to simple factors which some actors overlook at their peril.

“There’s no magic formula for doing well but I do believe that in acting, being on time, knowing your lines and being nice can help. Work spreads work and ours is a communal business. As actors we like all the things - the insecurity, the unsocial hours, the fact we don’t know what the future holds, which most people hate. That’s my main argument against soaps where you have to sign on for the next five years. That’s not why I became an actor.”

Pearson is characteristically untroubled by the disappearance of Monroe, the medical drama in which he co-starred with James Nesbitt. He puts the show’s demise down to ITV’s decision to enter it in the ratings list opposite the all-conquering New Tricks.

“But if it had gone to a third series, I wouldn’t have been here now, rehearsing Noises Off.”

Frayn has long had a weakness for farce, citing a visit to the National Theatre’s 1960s production of Feydeau’s A Flea In Her Ear as a particularly pleasurable night of rolling in the aisles. It’s a genre he obviously favours judging by the plot of his latest novel Skios, a farce of mistaken identity.

Noises Off was inspired, says the writer, by a visit backstage during a performance of his play The Two Of Us, his debut in London’s West End.

“The show, a series of two-handers, starred Richard Briers and Lynn Redgrave and in the closing piece, a farce, they played five characters between them. There had to be a series of quick changes. When I saw what that entailed, I thought it was funnier than anything that was happening on stage and I decided I’d like to write a farce, viewed from behind-the-scenes.”

That first seed of Noises Off grew into Exits, a one-act play presented at a fundraising midnight matinee in 1977. Frayn was then commissioned by Michael Codron, the doyen of West End producers, to write a full-length version.

“Writing Noises Off was difficult,” says Frayn. “It was like trying to make a sculpture out of jelly. Every time you change something in one of the acts it bulges out in the other two. I didn’t know whether actors would agree to perform a large part of the play not to the audience but to the back wall of the theatre - or even if they could learn to perform all the backstage action of act two in mime.

“I often cursed the day I ever decided to write it. Michael Blakemore, the director of the first production, promised to give the play his best shot, but said he had really no idea whether it would work or not. As we left the rehearsal room at the end of each day I could see his reassuring smile draining away to bleak anxiety.”

The play was well received at its first preview at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith but it was immediately apparent some major repair work had to be carried out in the last act.

“As written, it turned suddenly serious halfway through act three but it was obvious the audience wouldn’t tolerate existential angst at that point in the evening. I went on rewriting each day until Nicky Henson, who was playing Garry, was deputed by the rest of the company (rather like Garry in the play) to announce they would learn no more new versions.

“Each time we rehearsed a new cast during the run at the Savoy, though, I did some more work on it and again when it opened in Washington and when it transferred to Broadway.”

Frayn pays tribute to the contributions to the development of the piece made by the three directors of its major UK productions - Michael Blakemore, Jeremy Sams and now Lindsay Posner. It seems as if we have now arrived at the definitive version.

Judging by the international reach which it has attained down the years, his account of actors struggling to achieve a theatrical performance has struck a universal chord. But why?

“I think it’s connected to the fear we all have inside ourselves that we might be unable to go on with the performance. It’s amazing how many people find public speaking terrifying, even if it’s just in front of family and friends at a wedding. An audience is an intense version of the world around us in general.

“We all feel we might break down - and we sometimes do. So when we see it happening to those idiots up there on the stage in a farce it’s a release of the tension.”

If the public delight in the spectacle of actors straining to keep Nothing On afloat, there are reports some members of the theatrical profession were less amused by Noises Off’s depiction of actors as dim-witted, emotionally immature and inclined to alcoholic excess.

Frayn pleads guilty but with extenuating circumstances.

“It’s a very unfair picture of actors,” he admits. “In my experience, actors are astonishing people - intelligent, resourceful, mutually supportive and often with wide-ranging interests in things well outside the limits of the theatre. The more I work with them the more I admire them.

“On the other hand, Noises Off is a farce and the characterisation in a farce has to be a bit two-dimensional. Anyway it’s not completely unknown for actors to have affairs and rows with one another.”

His conscience has been equally pricked by the dangers to which actors in Noises Off are subjected. He recalls one unfortunate Garry, during a performance in Oxford, gashing himself during his tumble down the stairs in act three so badly that the actress playing Dotty had to move downstage to conceal the gathering pool of blood from the audience.

Noises Off runs from May 20-25.

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