Review | Noises Off at Chichester Festival Theatre: "Comfortingly familiar"

Noises Off. Photo by Pamela RaithNoises Off. Photo by Pamela Raith
Noises Off. Photo by Pamela Raith
The concept of the ‘meta-farce’ – a comedy about a chaotic performance of a comedy – has seen revived interest in recent years

The Play That Goes Wrong franchise has won an Olivier and had TV specials, but it owes a debt to Noises Off, which set the trend in motion decades earlier.

Written by journalist turned novelist and playwright Michael Frayn in 1982, the play is inspired by his observations that what goes on backstage is sometimes more entertaining than what the audience sees.

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Divided into three parts with two intervals, the show is a trio of interpretations of the first act of a racy farce called Nothing On, in which two couples independently descend on a country home for what they think will be a clandestine romp – until they see the housekeeper is in.

The first section takes us through the final rehearsal before the premiere show of the tour, and introduces us to the cast of theatrical archetypes: the sardonic, womanising director; the airhead bimbo; the veteran alcoholic; the ‘luvvie’ gossip; the overworked and under-appreciated stage manager.

Tensions are simmering among the cast, but don’t come to a full boil until the second act – in which the set literally flips around and shows us what’s going on backstage during a matinee performance.

It’s largely mimed as the actors who aren’t onstage try to keep quiet – and slapstick comedy ensues.

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The third and final section of the show comes at the end of the run, with the actors and the show on its knees – desperately trying to get through it before the final wheel falls off.

I was entertained to varying degrees throughout.

The first act I found the pace slightly too slow; the second, too fast.

I spent too much of it trying to remind myself of the characters’ relationships that the full impact of the comedy was lost on me.

The third was my favourite, watching the show go into full meltdown.

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Particular praise should go to Lucy Robinson playing Belinda Blair playing rich wife Flavia Brent – whose attempt to coo and fawn her way through the chaos had me chuckling.

Simon Coates as Frederick Fellowes was also a hoot, an apologetic, dim-witted bag of nerves who gets a nosebleed at the sight of fighting or injury.

Suffice to say, he spends most of the play with a hankie over his nose.

It’s a play both comfortingly familiar in its comedic tradition yet novel in its presentation – and had much of the audience in stitches.

It’s by no means perfect; but then, I guess that is the point.

Until Saturday, January 13.