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A CurtainUp Review
Noises Off

Noises Off returns to the Piccadilly Theatre London to celebrate its twenty first birthday

Editor's Note: This is our 4th go-around for this enduring farce, with reviews from latest to earliest below: the 21st anniversary birthday production reviewed below by Brian Clover, my review of the show's Broadway run, followed by Les Gutman's take when the cast changed -- and Lizzie Loveridge's review, below that. Whew!---e.s.

Noises Off is of course one of the funniest plays on eighteen legs, leaving some of tonight's audience snorting and chortling uncontrollably, to the alarm of the Piccadilly Theatre's paramedics. (So much so that other members of the audience look around, wondering if the display of life-threatening hilarity is part of the act.) But this enormously sophisticated play could also be seen as Middle England's Waiting For Godot. While Samuel Beckett found universality by blending nightmare images of occupied France with silent comic movies, Michael Frayn, with seeming diffidence, achieves something similar with the banalities of provincial England and the English theatrical farce.

In Noises Off all the world's a stage, ruled by an un-omnipotent God - the Director - who doesn't think too much of the script and would rather be working on his next creation, though that doesn't turn out much better either. We people are the Actors, who have our life script to perform but, subverted by our weaknesses - passion, vanity and incompetence - we progressively mess it up until it is barely recognisable. The show goes on, but what kind of a show is it when by the end of the tour entropy has finally set in and turned a farce into a shambles?

As the world on the stage disintegrates before us we can see the links with the more serious themes Frayn deploys in Copenhagen. Well, we could see them if we weren't laughing so much and gasping in awe at the blinding stagecraft. What other play gets one of it biggest laughs from a completely empty stage? This transfer cast is superlative and it would be unfair to single anyone out. Jeremy Sams, the real director, has kept the piece alive and, I think, sexed it up a little, to coin a phrase. Superlative theatre.

New Production notes
Written by Michael Frayn
Directed by Jeremy Sams
Starring: Cheryl Campbell and Sylvester McCoy
With: Philip Franks, James Albrecht, Tilly Gaunt, Nicky Callanan, Tessa Churchard, Paul Bradley, Andrew Pointon,
Designer: Robert Jones
Lighting Designer: Tim Mitchell
Sound: Fergus O'Hare
Running time: Two hours 20 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6630
Booking to 18th October 2003
The National Theatre Production
Re-reviewed by Brian Clover based on 13th August 2003 Performance at the Piccadilly Theatre, Denman Street, London W1 (Tube Station: Piccadilly Circus)

-- The National Theatre's Revival of Noises Off is London's Gift to Laugh-Hungry New York
English farce isn't everyone's cup of tea, but Michael Frayn's Noises Off is irresistible. Its door slamming farce-within-a-farce shenanigans are as precisely and intricately calibrated as the mathematical theories of the physicists of his highbrow drama Copenhagen. In Jeremy Sams, Mr. Frayn has been blessed with the ideal director to make his twenty-year old hit funnier than ever.

Unlike Lloyd Dallas, Frayn's fictional director who is unable to prevent his show from disintegrating, Mr. Sams has succeeded in getting timed-to-perfection performances from two casts -- one English, one American. There's not a misstep in the nonstop mishaps. Nothing On, the farce-within, may be doomed to disaster, but Noises Off is farcical Nirvana.

Mr. Sams has brought his marvelous team of designers along to recreate the look of last year's National Theatre production at the Brooks Atkinson -- the same tacky country house, with its doors and curtains ingeniously shown from back stage in the second act (I counted nine, without the fire exit and aisles used several times, which is more than double the four considered farcessential ); same character-defining costumes. Except for some reservations about the final act, which I think would avoid losing some of its fizz if cut by about ten minutes, I find myself in almost total agreement with Lizzie Loveridge's overall assessment of the way Noises Off retains its ability to bring tears-in-your-eyes laughter. I therefore shall reserve my comments here for the American cast and refer you to her review and plot details below, which includes production notes for the show now on Broadway.

Patti LuPone plays the Nothing On company's somewhat faded star Dotty Otley and the farce within's Mrs. Clackett, the maid in charge of the Brent mansion and the endlessly misplaced plates of sardines. She is marvelously excessive -- a combination sitcom drudge and grand dame (shades of her Sunset Boulevard diva). Consequently, it hardly matters that her Cockney accent is so thick that it's often incomprehensible. Peter Gallagher brings great style to the fussy, self-important director and compulsive womanizer Lloyd Dallas. The mantra guiding his directorial vision is " Doors and sardines. . . , that's farce, that's theater, that's life!".

While the names of LuPone and Gallagher appear in star-sized, bold-faced type above the play title, the whole ensemble is star caliber.

Thomas McCarthy shuttles smoothly from being Dotty's backstage boy toy Gary LeJeune and Roger Tramplemain (some of Frayn's names warrant giggles in their own right) the real estate agent in Nothing On. Katie Finneran just about steals the show as Brooke Ashton whose backstage affair (with Dallas) and Vicki whose onstage affair (with Tramplemain) is a case door-banging--interruptus. Her priceless blank looks and body language create a new benchmark for all future ditsy blondes. Her lost contact lenses outdo all those plates of misplaced sardines for the plays coup-de-comedy.

Faith Prince and Edward Hibbert are alliteratively matched as the likeable Frederick Fellows and Belinda Blair and the Brents in whose mansion doors slam and glass shatters. Prince is charming and funny in this more than usual laid back persona and Hibbert is delightfully discombobulated.

Richard Easton, best known for more serious roles (e.g. A.E. Houseman in The Invention of Love), also has his name above the title. Superb actor that he is, he , makes the most of the small role of a thespian oldster whose usually caught drunk and dozing when it's time for him to make his entrance as a burglar whose big line is "I used to do banks!"

Robin Weigert and T.R. Knight also playing small roles, contribute big laughs as the harried stage managers. Weigert's Poppy Norton-Taylor has squeezed an affair with the director into her various and daunting backstage duties. Knight's Tim Allgood, true to his name, tries to do good for all in the cast. Their alternating broadcast announcements about the status of the about to rise curtain are amongst the show's brightest small gems. Mr. Knight also has a delightful few moments when at the beginning of the second act he makes an introductory speech to the audience that is one of the additions by Frayn and Sams referred to in Lizzie Loveridge's review.

The extra program for Nothing On referred to in Lizzie's review is included with the Playbill -- and the comments of Robin Housemonger, A.K.A. Michael Frayn, are indeed must-reading as Noises Off is must-seeing for anyone in the mood for a hearty laugh -- Elyse Sommer

New Cast as of August 2002

While the original Playbill for this Broadway revival had three stars listed above the title, the new one for the current replacement cast features only one: Jane Curtin. There are several ironies in this. First, the real star of Noises Off has always been, and remains, Michael Frayn's funny-funny-funny script which outperforms anyone on stage no matter the production. Second, as with the original New York cast of this production, if there is a stand-out on stage, it is the actor portraying Brooke Ashton (now Kali Rocha, no longer the "ditsy blonde" that Katie Finneran was, but in every other respect succeeding splendidly in succeeding her). And third, Ms. Curtin, for all her appeal, fades almost totally into the ensemble. That's not a bad thing, mind you: this is a show best played as an ensemble piece.

The new cast is astonishing in its physical delivery of all of the antics Frayn and director Jeremy Sams have concocted. Nothing more could be asked of them and, turth be told, nothing much else is actually required. The show remains a laugh-out-loud comedy of the highest order. But except for Ms. Roca, there is little remarkable on display beyond the exquisite timing everyone seems to have down pat. Ms. Curtin retains the "sitcom drudge" Elyse Sommer described in Patti Lupone's performance, but there is no hint of the "grand dame" in Ms. Curtin's portrayal, and as a consequence something is lost. I found Leigh Lawson's Lloyd Dallas totally satisfying, even though he lacks the self-important aura of Peter Gallagher, and John Horton is just fine as the whiskey soaked, hearing impaired old actor, Selsdon Mowbray. The remainder of the cast does solid work that doesn't really need to be any more exceptional tan it is.

Since it honestly is the play that's the thing this time, Noises Off remains a great experience. We may not need a good laugh as much as we did when this show opened right after 9/11, but it never hurts. Well, that's not quite true -- you may laugh so hard you'll hurt, but it'll subside. ---Les Gutman.

---Our Original London Review- by Lizzie Loveridge
The cultural importance of the so-called "bedroom farce" or "English sex farce" has long been recognised, but attention has tended to centre on the metaphysical significance of mistaken identity and upon social criticism implicit in the form's ground breaking exploration of cross-dressing and trans-gender role playing
---Michael Frayn in a tongue in cheek introduction to Nothing On
I tend to side with those that feel the West End can mount their own hit runs and that much of what the National does should be more esoteric, more innovative, more challenging. However I find I am having to eat my words as I cannot fault this production of a revival of a wonderfully funny play, written by Michael Frayn about a theatrical touring company playing a farce. Trevor Nunn feels that the National Theatre should be a theatre for all the nation and so justifies the scheduling of a revival of a West End hit that ran for five years in the 1980s. However Noises Off falls into a special category because it shows what happens behind the scenes of provincial British theatre. What the National achieves here is a benchmark for comedy and a slant on British theatrical history.

The play is split into three parts, all called Part One in the programme. The first is a final dress rehearsal for Nothing On, one of those West End farces where girls run about in their underwear, men drop their trousers and everyone gets caught in a compromising position in someone else's bedroom. It is all light hearted fun, light years away from the The Puppetry of the Penis. What makes the first part special is the intervention of the director as he sardonically tries to whip the cast into shape. We are also introduced to some of the relationships within the company. The director Lloyd Dallas (Peter Egan), who read English at Cambridge and stagecraft at the local unemployment benefits office, is pursuing the young, blonde, female lead, Brooke Ashton (Natalie Walter), who once wore froth in an advertisement for lager, having abandoned the downtrodden Assistant Stage Manager, Poppy Norton-Taylor (Selina Griffiths). It is not until the second act that you realise how very clever Michael Frayn has been. In this, the set is completely reversed and during one of the touring performances, we see what goes on behind the scenes: the entrances, the exits, the props, the contortions of all as the hectic farce gets underway. In the final part, we see the farewell performance with a cast either inebriated or lovesick or both. There is feuding and slapstick and if it can go wrong, it does! Banisters collapse, sardines are flung, handles come off doors, masonry falls and everything gets out of sync. The version played here is newly revised by Michael Frayn and Jeremy Sams.

.Noises Off is a companion piece to Alan Aykbourn's House and Garden which was staged earlier this year, only much more interesting because it shows the chaos behind the scenes. It pales slightly by comparison only towards the end of the first act, when there is an almost straightforward run through of the farce Nothing On. However one realises later that this set up is necessary in order to appreciate the back stage machinations in Act Two, and exactly what has gone wrong in Act Three.

The whole is as brilliantly performed, as slick as you could hope to find in theatre today and I laughed more than I have for ages. Jeremy Sams as director gets first class performances from his talented cast and the whole moves at a tidy pace. Patricia Hodge is never seen out of her char's costume. As Dotty Ottley, an actress with a cut glass accent playing Cockney Mrs Clackett, the daily help, she is a gem, full of humour, even if she keeps forgetting the plate of sardines. Dotty's off stage lover is Garry Lejeune (Aden Gillett) playing estate agent and lover boy, Roger Tramplemain. Jeff Rawle as Frederick Fellowes as Philip Brent is a disaster area in his personal life and on stage as he seeks to avoid the tax man. Susie Blake is Belinda Blair, a real trouper who tries to smooth over everything. Christopher Benjamin plays the aged actor, the alcoholic weak link who has a habit of ending up asleep with an empty whisky bottle when he is due on stage. The anticipation of his non entrance leads to two understudies taking to the stage in his burglar costume, making three burglars in all.

I loved the mix up in who was doing the audience announcements so that Tim (Paul Thornley) and Poppy give out conflicting information over the loudspeaker. Brooke is forever losing a contact lens and all stops while they try to find it. It does sound very complicated but Frayn's skill is such that it is easy to follow onstage.

Robert Jones' set is exactly right: cluttered, overly stuffed and rather tacky, a country house with staircase and numerous doors of bathroom, bedroom and airing cupboard to keep up the misunderstandings, exits and entrances. When it reverses it is masterly in its detail. 

Even the additional programme by Frayn is full of humorous detail like the theatrical biographies of the cast of Nothing On. It seems that Garry and Dotty met on TV's On the Zebras when she was playing a lollipop lady (school crossing patrolman) to Garry's Cornetto, ice cream salesman. Enjoy! This is a comedy which the whole family will relish and after a tour, it is envisaged that it will transfer to a West End commercial theatre where it deserves to run and run.

Written by Michael Frayn
Directed by Jeremy Sams
London Cast: Patricia Hodge, Peter Egan; with: Aden Gillett, Natalie Walker, Selina Griffiths, Susie Blake, Jeff Rawle, Paul Thornley, Christopher Benjamin
New York Cast: Cast: Starring Patti LuPone, Peter Gallagher, Richard Easton; co-starring Faith Prince, and Edward Hibbert; with Katie Finneran, T.R. Knight, Thomas McCarthy, Robin Weigert
New York replacement cast: Jane Curtin, Carson Elrod, Paul Fitzgerald, Kaitlin Hopkins, John Horton, Byron Jennings, Leigh Lawson, Kali Rocha and Mandy Siegfried
Set and Costume Design: Robert Jones
Lighting Design: Tim Mitchell
Sound Designer: Fergus O'Hare for Aura
Running time: Two hours twenty minutes including one Intermission
Brooks Atkinson, 256 W. 47th St., (Broadway/8th Av), 212/307-4100
From 10/16/01; opening 11/01/01.
Tues-Sat at 8; Wed & Sat at 2; Sun at 3.;
Reviewed in London by Lizzie Loveridge October 5, 2000
Reviewed in New York by Elyse Sommer based on November 7, 2001 performance
Re-reviewed in New York with new cast by Les Gutman based on August 7, 2002 performance

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