Tuesday, April 23

Noises Off – Storyhouse Chester

A packed Storyhouse laughed out loud at a comedy that still manages to deliver.

It’s over 40 years since Michael Frayn wrote Noises Off, which has been described as ‘the funniest farce’ and is probably the inspiration for the ‘Goes Wrong’ series that is now popular.  Bedroom Farce was a type of theatre in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but then fell out of popularity when public sensibilities saw them as sexist and rather degrading. Noises Off is a play within a play about the farcical antics of a theatre company trying to present ‘Nothing On’ – an actual farce. Frayn shows that what goes on backstage is often funnier than what happens on stage but when it all gets mixed up, it’s hilarious. There have been many plays since that revisit this subject: David Tristam’s Little Grimley Series might come to mind but Noises Off is considered the daddy of them all.

Director Lindsay Posner has pulled together an impressive cast for this tour with some familiar faces from TV and West End.  I saw it many years ago, when full sets were still the norm and I must say when the curtain rose on the country house with staircase, French windows, and lots of doors – all farces need lots of banging doors – my heart leapt.  You certainly have to credit the workmanship. Simon Higlett’s design is impressive, but the team have to build it, dismantle it, then move it on to the next theatre.  Not only that, but the whole thing also has to revolve in the next act, so we see behind the scenes and then revolve again for Act III.

It all begins at the final rehearsal, when Mrs Clackett the cleaner (Nothing On) played by Dotty Otley (Noises Off) played by the familiar face of Lisa Goddard, is confused by a telephone call and a plate of Sardines. At this point I would suggest you should buy a programme because everything about the characters of both plays is explained – in case you get confused.

2023 Cast – Photo: Pamela Raith

All you really need to know is there’s a lot of Sardines, doors, whiskey, a telephone.  A lot of misunderstandings and running up and down and in and out. The art of Farce is in the action – it’s not so much what they say or do but the way they do it and this well-seasoned cast certainly had the excellent timing that’s needed to pull it off.  

ACT 1 was, unfortunately for me, only half seen, due to two large gentlemen sitting in front of me and blocking stage left and stage right. My constant bobbing to try and see could have been farcical in itself but probably an annoyance for those behind. In the interval I asked to move and from the raised back stalls I had an excellent view.

Lisa Goddard, who gets funnier as the acts progress, is joined by another familiar TV face, Simon Sheppard, as the anguished director who has to try and pull this disjointed play together, as well as juggling his romantic liaisons with two of the cast.   Mrs. Clackett is alone in the house, until the estate agent Garry Lejuene turns up with Brooke Ashton, hoping for a bit of afternoon delight. Whilst they are in and out of the bedroom, the house owners Mr. and Mrs. Brent returns from abroad, followed by an opportunist burglar. There is also a Sheikh as another complication and two off-stage characters in the stage manager and assistant manager, who interact with the cast. No spoilers! But the complications get more entangled and, as you would expect, mayhem ensues.

Farce is actually a very difficult form of comedy – getting the balance with improbable situations, stereotyped characters and extravagant exaggeration, physical horseplay and timing. As there are two plays here – two sets of characters, we need to be able to see the difference. Yes, they are all exaggerated versions of themselves but sometimes the difference between the characters in Nothing One and their other selves in Noises Off was blurred. The ‘actors’ in the Noises Off cast still need to be believable and it’s their actions which make the comedy.

If Act 1 was amusing, Act 2 raised the bar with its physical comedy in ‘the backstage’ scene, well-choreographed, you would have to see it to believe it.  By Act 3, when the whole thing is falling apart, the auditorium shook with belly laughs and giggles. Here the timing was immaculate – particularly that of Lejuene, who was played on this occasion by understudy Mark Middleton.  Middleton is the company fight captain, so we’d expect his movement to be excellent. His physicality and body language were superb. The falling down the stairs so masterful, it got an applause. 

Paul Bradley as the incompetent burglar/ Selsdon Mowbray, was the crowd-pleaser with his very funny delivery and characteristics. Simon Coates playing Fred Fellowes/ Mr. Brent was pan-faced and suitable annoying with his questioning.  Lucy Robinson as the ‘ever so nice but drippy’ Belinda, had some brilliant facial expressions and a good connection with the audience. Lisa Ambalavanar, as the sexy Brooke, who’s always losing her contacts, was convincing.  Nikhita Lesler’s Poppy as the ASM was correctly naturalist and finally, Daniel Rainford as Tim the SM gave a delightfully well-observed performance and won our sympathies.

On a cold winter’s night when life is as gloomy as it can get, this is a good entertainment, perhaps a little old fashioned for today’s stylized, modernist expectations but sometimes, the oldies are the best and one thing for sure, everyone left with a smile of their face.  If you love sitcom silliness and sheer bizarre absurdity – you’ll love the hilarity of Noise Off!

Playing until 10th February, https://www.storyhouse.com/whats-on/noises-off/

Reviewer: Bev Clark

Reviewed: 6th February 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.