NOISES OFF

★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
  at _BIRMINGHAM REP.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _9th SEP.

August 30, 2023

images © Pamela Raith.

Of all the ‘sure things’ in theatre, Noises Off is doubtless amongst the most dependable.

For certain, casting can be a strong bellwether as to how rib-tickling any particular production of Frayn’s classic metafictive romp is likely to be. But generally, you know you’re in for a good time watching the gradual collapse of a fictional touring production, beset with backstage hijinks, misunderstandings and general mayhem.

The progenitor of many modern farces of its ilk (the impact and influence on The Play That Goes Wrong and indeed much of Mischief Theatre’s output is undeniable), Noises lands in 2023 as a slightly less technically ambitious slice of physical silly than many of its successors, but no less biting or delicious.

For sure, some of its handling of issues offer occasional glimpses at Noises’ age (having debuted back in 1982), but there remains something infectiously irresistible about watching this merry band of players and their fictional touring piece gradually deteriorate into bedlam.

“…there remains something infectiously irresistible about watching this merry band of players and their fictional touring piece gradually deteriorate into bedlam.”

And, where many of its imitators lean harder or go grander on the slapstick, Noises remains the king of keeping character, and not incident, as the source of its funny.

Based in part on writer Michael Frayn’s own experiences and obversations in company and touring theatre, one of the evergreen delights of this silly show are the personalities and interpersonal squabbles that fuel so much of the anarchy. It’s fairly broad stuff – the frayed director (Simon Shepherd) putting it about with his leading lady (Lisa Ambalavanar) and stage manager (Nikhita Lesler) both. The self-admittedly (“You know how stupid I am”) hopeless actor (Simon Coates) asking endless questions of motivation, whilst regularly fainting at the first signs of violence. Catfights between co-stars. The grandstanding, neurotic leading man (Garry Lejeune) who descends to bouts of almost psychotic, axe-wielding jealous rage. And, of course, the ever-reliable presence of the whiskey-sloshing, line-forgetting has-been (Matthew Kelly). 

This latest touring production stems off of last year’s fortieth anniversary revival, which saw the likes of Felicity Kendal and Tracy-Ann Oberman fooling around in Frayn’s madcap sandbox. For this tour, Olivier-winner and former tv favourite, Matthew Kelly, is likely the most recognisable name, and he is great fun throughout as forgetful dipsomaniac Selsdon. But he’s capably joined by a well-rounded company who keep the energy levels high, and the laughs regular. Noises has a fairly carefully-calibrated creeping ascension of chaos, and the entire troupe do a great job of gradually upping the ante on the madness.

“Olivier-winner Matthew Kelly… whose cheery, drunken whimsy lights up every scene he stumbles through…”

They’re all solid, though along with Kelly, whose cheery, drunken whimsy lights up every scene he stumbles through, there are some notable standouts. Dan Fredenburgh is a whirlwind of manic energy, from cocksure to crazed, as an increasingly incensed and despairing Garry. Simon Shepherd bandies between deadpan and rage with a character that he manages to pull from being too sleazy or detestable in a post-‘me too’ age. And Lisa Ambalavanar is gloriously ditzy as an actress completely unwilling (unable?) to ad-lib or veer off-script, even as scenes collapse about her.

Perhaps most fabulous of all is stage and screen veteran Lucy Robinson as consummate luvvy, Belinda. Pitching her flamboyantly stagey and animated actress as something resembling Patricia Routledge by way of a caffeine overdose, it’s a delectable, side-splitting spot of character work. A late-game sequence wherein Robinson’s Belinda is attempting to hold together the rapidly-collapsing show around her offers up amongst the finest examples of comedy performance you’ll likely see on stage this year.

“…offers up amongst the finest examples of omedy performance you’ll likely see on stage this year.”

Director Lindsay Posner keeps things taut, punchy and fairly immaculately paced. Some of the physical tussles occasionally register as a little too phoney, but the jokes and set pieces come thick and fast enough that the odd dodgy wrestle or tug of war is quickly forgotten.

As ‘sure things’ go, seeing Noises Off return over four decades after it first debuted, and having lost none of its humour or heart in the process, makes for a very easy recommendation. For some weaned on the multi-levelled, stage-destroying spectacle of The Play That Goes Wrong (Mischief’s offerings being now so ubiquitous as to make the comparison unavoidable), then here you’ll likely find a slightly tamer, perhaps even more twee affair, yet one whose characters and repartee sizzle as caustically and foolishly as ever.

Noises still brings the laughs and, peppered with some genuinely fantastic comedic turns as this touring production is, proves to be definitely one to tick ‘Off’ the bucket list.

Kelly, Robinson and friends bring Frayn’s undisputed classic back with infectious relish. Its physicality and slapstick hijinks register a little tamer in the post-Mischief landscape, but its character work and silliness have lost none of their spark.

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