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Stuart King

Review: NOISES OFF at The Haymarket Theatre Royal

Taking its title from the stage direction appearing in scripts to indicate sounds coming from off-stage, NOISES OFF is widely considered Michael Frayn’s masterpiece of farce which was conceived as long ago as 1970 as he watched Lynn Redgrave perform in a (not especially funny) play, which the author realised was far funnier when observed from backstage.

Felicity Kendal and Jonathan Coy in Noises Off. Credit Nobby ClarkFelicity Kendal and Jonathan Coy in Noises Off. Credit Nobby Clark.

The result of that realisation, is a comedy farce completed in 1982 which ever since it opened has regularly been staged around the globe and even spawned a movie version in 1992 (which suffered from noticeably limited appeal and lacklustre box office receipts). Here at the Haymarket Theatre Royal, Felicity Kendal leads the cast as an ageing actress named Dotty Otley (playing on-stage character Mrs Clackett) who gets progressively more confused by lines, plates of sardines, newspapers, boxes, telephones and other cast members, in a farce named Nothing On being performed at various British seaside touring venues.

The first act shows the frustrations of the director, the second of his cast of insufferably insincere luvvies and by the final performance, everything which could possibly go wrong, has, or is in the process of doing so. The idea could almost inspire a whole series of farcical plays which go wrong!!!!

At a sprightly 77, it is perhaps unsurprising that Ms Kendall considers this a suitable vehicle for her skills. Her ample theatre credentials and experience render her perfect to deliver a loveable (if slightly dotty) touring thesp. As the company progress (at least geographically) from Weston-super-Mare’s final rehearsal, through the cataclysmic matinee — seen entirely from back stage in Ashton-under-Lyne and on to the hysterical final performance in Stockton-on-Tees, this 40th anniversary production directed by Lindsay Posner, is everything you would expect. However, the burning question remains, aside from the commendable desire to mark the passing of four decades, why this play and why now?

Frayn was himself present at last evening’s press night and looked remarkably nimble for a 90 year old. The same cannot be said of the piece which feels horribly dated irrespective of the exhausting antics of the cast members to give everyone something at which to guffaw. Frayn’s more cerebral Copenhagen and Democracy were justifiably huge critical successes and yet this clunky old warhorse is the one in the West End. Sometimes, the decisions of producers and directors is a mystery.

By the end, the appreciative audience (whose average age must have been mid-60s) seemed satisfied if slightly frazzled by the unceasing chaos, but stylistically the piece hardly feels suitable West End fodder in 2023, despite the boundless energy required of its cast which also includes: Jonathan Coy, James Fleet, Alexander Hanson, Mathew Horne, Tamzin Outhwaite, Sasha Frost, Oscar Batterham and Pepter Lunkuse. It is to be hoped that their monumental efforts attract more than a few coach loads of the blue rinse matinee brigade, otherwise Ashton-under-Lyne will begin to feel miserably prescient.