Noises off: a theatrical stage direction indicating sounds coming from offstage
That may be the definition, but in the hands of playwright and author Michael Frayn, Noises Off becomes a hilarious play within a play where some of the funniest action takes place behind the scenes.
It was with great pleasure that I attended a performance of this farce yesterday at Actors Theatre. It kicked off the theatre's 50th year.
The first act of the play - set in a living room - takes place at the technical/dress rehearsal of the fictitious play Nothing On. (There is even a program in the program for the play.) The director spends a lot of time trying to get his cast to actually act and not search for 'motivation.' The play has characters banging in and out of some seven doors all avoiding each other by a hair. One of the female characters spends the better part of the play in her underwear. Men's trousers fall down. Various plates of sardines and other props are misplaced, dropped, or left off stage when they should be onstage. There are various romantic entanglements going on between the actors and the characters in the play.
The second act setting is back stage. The company has been on tour for about a month, romantic entanglements have gotten very entangled, and much jealousy and murderous rage ensues. Meanwhile, the play must go on and the (real) audience is treated to what is going on backstage as the play is being performed. Lots of slapstick here with missed cues, made-up-on-the-spot dialogue, and a running gag of a bottle of whiskey changing hands and lips with almost everyone.
Finally, we see a performance near the end of the tour. Back in the living room set, the actors are exhausted, many of them are not speaking to one another, one is injured and limps about the stage forgetting her lines. Another, the woman in her 'smalls,' remembers her lines but doesn't recite them in context to what is actually being said or is happening on stage. Understudies appear and disappear and then sometimes reappear onstage at the same time as the actor for which they are the understudy. At one point, even the director shows up in costume on stage. The whole production has broken down and mayhem reigns until the final curtain.
This is one of the funniest plays ever. The dialogue and action all come together perfectly, proving that timing is everything. I attended a production of Noises Off long ago and was excited to get a chance to see it again.
It premiered in London in 1982. It won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy that same year. It was made into a movie in 1992 but did not make the leap from stage to film very well. It really must be seen live to appreciate the skill of the actors and the timing.
I read Headlong, a novel by Mr. Frayn, earlier this year (here). Noises Off has the same breathless quality and kept me laughing for over two hours. What a delightful way to spend a Sunday afternoon.