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Review – Noises Off (UK Tour) – Storyhouse, Chester

THIS revival of Lindsay Posner’s 2011 Old Vic production of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off was first presented in 2022 for the play’s 40th Anniversary. Following a short tour and a very enthusiastically received West End run, It is now nearing the end of a second, much more extensive tour, with a refreshed cast.

For those unfamiliar with this uproarious comedy, it is a parody of the highly successful Whitehall Farces and similar comedies that reached their sell by date in the late 1960s but limped on in various forms through the ‘70s. Frayn cannily decided that plays of the genre were often as funny if not moreso from behind the scenes, and Noises Off was born.

We are treated in Ayckbournian fashion to three successive performances of the same thing, seen from different angles. We first meet a company at the Weston-super-Mare Grand Theatre, engaged in a combined dress and technical rehearsal of the first act of ‘Nothing On’ (a non-existent play by the equally fictitious Robin Housemonger). The long suffering director Lloyd Dallas is in despair as his cast, far from fine tuning the necessary snappy timing, are forgetting more and more of their lines and, worse still, their cues. In our Act II, we find ourselves backstage at the Theatre Royal Ashton-under-Lyne a few weeks later, where ‘Act I’ is playing to a matinee audience, who are possibly unaware of the chaos playing out behind the scenes. Finally, we are back out front, this time at the Municipal Theatre in Stockton-on-tees, where the play is nearing the end of its tour and has deteriorated to a state of complete catastrophe.

As with the genre that it seeks to make fun out of, Frayn’s play relies very heavily on rapid-fire delivery of often absurd dialogue and, especially, crack shot timing in the ever increasing number of entrances and exits. Thankfully this cast are rehearsed to within an inch of their lives, and could by now probably perform the movements in their sleep. What is particularly impressive is that although they have been on the road with the show since last August they are still giving it immense amounts of energy, and if they are remotely beginning to tire of it they show absolutely no sign of it in their pin-sharp performances.

Act I is funny enough to have the audience guffawing merrily, but it is after the interval, as we head backstage, that the comedy begins to render us helpless with laughter. It’s hard to pinpoint the moment that it really turns, but possibly it’s when Brook Ashton, playing Vicki in ‘Nothing On’, declares in desperate tones “I’m never going to see Basingstoke again!” Brooke, in turn, is played here by Lisa Ambalavanar, and there is something so completely lost about her delivery of the line that it sums up the befuddlement of everyone around her.

Ambalavanar is but one among a brilliant ensemble, and the piece is such a team effort it seems wrong to single individuals out for praise. Liza Goddard features prominently in the show’s PR, and is hysterically dry as the hopelessly confused Dotty Ottley, charged with managing some complicated business with a telephone and a lot of plates of sardines, but the entire cast deserve equal plaudits for their sterling work. Comedy like this is extraordinarily complicated and a huge ask both physically and mentally, and when it is working like a well oiled machine it’s easy to forget how much effort the entire cast and stage team are putting into it.

Everything, from Simon Higlett’s beautifully detailed set to Gregory Clarke’s excellent sound design, is executed to perfection (not forgetting that both of the above mentioned need to convince us that the cast are performing to an unseen audience behind the set in Act II Scene I).

Noises Off has become a classic that has spawned a great many similar shows about theatre falling apart and while it originally set out to poke fun at a dated form of comedy, and despite its own 40-plus years, it comes up as fresh as ever in this glorious tour.

Noises off is at Storyhouse in Chester until 10th February and then concludes its tour with visits to Cheltenham and Oxford.

Star rating: 5 stars
Review by Nigel Smith

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