How we made Noises Off

Patricia Routledge: ‘I kept bashing into doors and they kept bashing into me. I got through two bottles of arnica in rehearsals alone’

Michael Frayn, playwright

The idea came to me in 1970. I’d written a series of short plays and one night I was watching from the wings, seeing the actors dashing between the different doors backstage. It occurred to me that it was all far funnier from behind than it was in front. But I didn’t get round to working on anything until 1977, when I wrote a 15-minute version for a charity event. Michael Codron, who was producing, wanted more. I said I was very busy and he said: “Fine, fine. Take as long as you want.” Then he rang me every week.

I found it extremely difficult to write – it’s so complex, essentially two plays in one. In the first act, the audience sees a not especially good theatre company rehearsing a terrible farce called Nothing On. In the second, we watch the same company performing exactly the same thing a month later, this time from backstage. The third act is a later performance still, by which stage everyone is at each other’s throats. Even as it stands, the concept is difficult to grasp.

When I showed an early draft to Michael Blakemore, who ended up directing, he said no one would have the faintest idea what was going on. He insisted I went down to his summer house in Biarritz to redraft it. We’d work in the mornings and then go bodysurfing in the afternoons.

Even after all that, I still wasn’t sure it would come off. I visited Michael during rehearsals in early 1982 and, though he’d be smiling in the rehearsal room, I could see the smile sliding off as soon as he left. I remember watching a run-through: the cast were excellent, but I couldn’t see a single thing funny until the last act, when a telephone shoots off a table accidentally.

When I made changes, I had to do them in triplicate because every time you changed one act, you had to change the other two. It was like building something out of jelly. Eventually Nicky Henson – who was playing Garry, the spokesman for his fellow actors in the play – stood up on behalf of the rest of the cast and said that they weren’t prepared to cope with any more alterations. It was rather delightful, because that’s exactly what his character would have said. It reminds me of an old theatre story about an actor who’s terribly ill. A friend visits and the actor says: “It’s hard, dying – but it’s not as hard as farce.”

I was still making revisions even after it opened. It’s been through so many different versions now, not counting all the translations – Finnish, Japanese, Catalan and Spanish, many more. Apparently there was a recent production in Hamburg where the director decided it wasn’t a comedy at all. I’ve avoided seeing that one.

‘I’ve never met anyone quite as bad as her’ … Patricia Routledge as Dotty.
‘I’ve never met anyone quite as bad as her’ … Patricia Routledge as Dotty. Photograph: Tony Prime

Patricia Routledge, actor

I was in New York, just finishing The Pirates of Penzance, when they sent the script over. It was so brilliant, I agreed on the spot. That said, it wasn’t quite finished: some jokes didn’t work, and it was fiendishly complicated.

Michael Blakemore insisted on a full mock-up of the set in the rehearsal room, which you almost never get. It wasn’t a luxury, though. There was just no other way we could do it – the timing needs to be perfect. I kept bashing into doors, or having them bash into me. I got through two bottles of arnica in rehearsals alone.

I was playing Dotty Otley, the leading lady of the company, with delusions of grandeur. I’ve never met anyone quite as bad as her, but the standard of acting in the play-within-the-play had to be very tatty: that was the point. In the early days, even after we transferred to the West End, we had a few walk-outs. Some people clearly thought they were watching a genuinely terrible piece of theatre. I suppose we must have been convincingly second-rate.

• Noises Off is at the American Airlines theatre, New York, until 13 March.


Interviews by Andrew Dickson

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