At the weekend, we went to the opening night of Michael Frayn’s 1982 comedy Noises Off at Birmingham Rep. I’d heard of it, of course, and how hilarious it was said to be, but apart from being set in a theatre (as the title suggests) I didn’t know much about it. It’s a play within a play; a cast of actors is performing a (not very good) farce called Nothing On, and the first act is about their rehearsals, which are unpromising for the theatre and only mildly amusing for the audience. In the interval, I found myself wondering where it was going, and if this was all there was too it. I was wrong.
The second act opens to let the audience in to the backstage world; the set you see in the first half is turned around, so the audience is now behind the scenes – literally and metaphorically, while Nothing On is being performed on the other side of the set. This means that we see the exits and entrances, the dashing about looking for props and the arguments in the wings. Of course, none of this would work if we hadn’t seen Nothing On in rehearsal in the first act; it only becomes clear as the whole play unfolds how crucial this first act is to actually having a clue about what’s going on. The third act, we’re back in the right place, and the farce is being performed again, facing the audience this time, but tensions are riding high between the actors, and the farce goes farcically wrong.
What’s amazing about this is how the actors effortlessly demonstrate just how hard it is to play farce right – from timing to props, it’s all complicated. And yet, they do it perfectly (perfectly wrong, intentionally, of course, sometimes) and make it look easy. Noises Off is basically Nothing On performed three times, differently. As the actors get cross with each other, relationships disintegrate and the play goes wrong, it just gets funnier and funnier. I can’t do it justice – it’s one of the funniest plays I’ve ever seen; the comic timing of the cast is perfect, in what must be an extremely difficult play to get right (or get wrong, correctly). Ok, it’s confusing. Go and see it – you’ll love it. It’s on until June 5th.