Noises Off review – unconvincing reboot of Frayn’s farce-within-a-farce

Pitlochry Festival theatre
Despite the actors’ efforts and some wide-collared 1970s designs, Ben Occhipinti’s adaptation suffers from a lack of clarity

The actors in Noises Off have to play two parts. And they have to play them three times. First, in Michael Frayn’s 40-year-old farce-within-a-farce, they must play the roles in a creaky sex comedy called Nothing On. They take on an assortment of adulterers and tax avoiders making their exits and entrances on a set with more doors than seems feasible and more plates of sardines than seems wise.

Second, they play the performers who must grind their way through the preposterous plot night after night. They are an old-school weekly-rep troupe working the small-town circuit; this week, Ashton-under-Lyne, next week, Stockton-on-Tees. In their way, they are as archetypal as the cut-out characters they play. There is the clueless ingenue, the nice-but-dim leading man and the boozy old pro.

As they trundle from town to town, we see them doing the same dialogue in rehearsal, behind the scenes and on stage. The meta-theatrical joke is that the back-stage shenanigans are just as farcical as the contrivances of Nothing On. In a giddy double perspective, we see two shows for the price of one.

But for that joke to work, we have to believe in the scenario. As with all farce, if the actors play truthfully, we buy into the chaos; if they play for laughs, we see no reason for the fallout.

‘Ankle-length dresses and garish man-made fabrics’ … the cast of Noises Off wearing costumes designed by Liz Cooke.
‘Ankle-length dresses and garish man-made fabrics’ … the cast of Noises Off wearing costumes designed by Liz Cooke. Photograph: Fraser Band

That is why it makes sense for designer Liz Cooke to kit the cast out in ankle-length dresses, wide-collared shirts and garish man-made fabrics. Not since the 1970s has this kind of touring company proliferated and it is right they should be rooted in their time. But elsewhere in Ben Occhipinti’s production, there is no such clarity.

If we are to keep up with Frayn’s clockwork logic, we need certainty about who these characters are. We also need to understand their relationships. Here, both aspects are imprecise. Instead of establishing their essential characteristics – be they pompous, incompetent or fragile – the actors race too quickly to hysteria. We see too little of the groundwork that would justify their faff and panic.

The vagueness about what is at stake makes the wordless sequences in act two almost impossible to follow and, without the compensating laughter in act three, the actors’ great efforts go largely unrewarded.


Mark Fisher

The GuardianTramp

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