noises on

Garry, left, Dotty, Selsdon, with Tim behind, the Sheik who looks remarkably like Frederick, Belinda, Brooke and Poppy with Nothing OnPictures: Pamela Raith.

Noises Off

Birmingham Rep


Michael Frayn’s theatrical classic is an oasis of laughter in the desert of gloom that surrounds us these days in a Britain which, if not completely broken, is in dire need of substantial repair.

The play’s origins date back to 1970 when Frayn watched his farce The Two of Us from the wings and realised that the backstage dramas were far funnier than anything being offered on stage to the audience.

And, 12 years on, the play within a play within a play appeared on . . . and off stage and 40 years on the laughter still rings out.

The story is simple, a group of journeymen actors, including one who you suspect no one can remember ever being sober, are about to tour a rather abysmal sex farce around the theatres of the lesser known by-ways of the theatrical gazetteer.

And with four women and four men . . . and a drunk, there is plenty of scope, or perhaps more hope, for, should we say, private rehearsals of the more . . . horizontal scenes.

We open approaching midnight in the midst of the dress or maybe technical rehearsal, the night before opening night. The old adage is a bad dress means a good opening, but then the old adage hadn’t seen this dress. Mediocre was merely an ambition.

Slowly losing the will to live is the director Lloyd, played as if the world is transpiring against him by Simon Shepherd. First to try his diminishing patience is Lisa Goddard as Dotty.


There are two sides to every story as Poppy faces Lloyd, Belinda and Frederick

Dotty, who has money invested in the show, which immediately questions her sanity, knows her lines, sort of, and remembers a hint or so of stage direction, which involves a lot of sardines and a telephone . . . maybe.  But she is not alone with missed cues, forgotten and wrong lines, missing or unwanted props and a cast unsure what they are doing and why.

Dotty in turn plays Mrs Crocket  Clackett  the housekeeper looking after the house for playwright Philip Brent played by Frederick Fellowes who is a tax exile in Spain and who, in turn, is played by Simon Coates.

As Dotty, on her afternoon off, plans a plate of sardines and sitting down to watch that thing on the telly, Dan Fredenburgh turns up. He plays leading man Garry LeJeune who in turn plays estate agent Roger Tramplemain and he has arrived to what he had thought was a deserted house with Vicki, for what we might euphemistically call a viewing. Garry struggles to say anything intelligible without the aid of a script and, running out of thoughts, usually ends his sentences with a sort of quizzical “you know . . .” Which you obviously don’t, but we will let that pass.

Vicki is played by Brooke Ashton who in turn is played by Lisa Ambalavanar. Brooke, young, attractive, vivacious even, you suspect, is not in the play for her somewhat limited acting ability – smile, pout, sexy stance. Vicki  has been told by Roger – appropriate name there - that the house is his, a sort of country hideaway.


When it comes too nosebleeds, an axe is quite effective as Dotty attempts to stop Garry demonstrating to Frederick

Next we have the returning playwright, arriving to what he thinks is his deserted home for a bit of . . . it’s a farce remember. Frederick has all the confidence of a man facing a firing squad, suffers nosebleeds at any hint of violence, and also at the sight of blood, which is a double problem if violence ensues. He has a desperate need know his characters motivation for everything he does – even walking on stage needs an explanation. 

He has arrived back from Spain for reasons best known in a part of the script we never reached, for a night of passion, and a hot water bottle, with his wife Flavia played by Belinda Blair who is played by Lucy Robinson . . . do please keep up at the back.  

If the tax man should find them back in the country Fred will be liable for a fortune in taxes so mum’s the word. Incidentally, Vicki works for the tax office, which would be enough to give Frederick a nosebleed, both nostrils, if she ever found out he was here.

Belinda is a solid, steady actress, prone to divulging gossip, a calming influence backstage - as long as no one tries to take her Freddy.

So we have two couples, each with an intended destination of the bedroom and each unaware they are not alone. So, to add to the confusion, how about a burglar in obligatory striped jumper?

Enter, through the window with all the stealth of a herd of bulls in a china shop, Selsdon, who in turn is played by Matthew Kelly. Selsdon is an old soak, sorry, old pro actor, who keeps the rest of the cast and back stage crew on their toes, mainly to ensure he gets nowhere near a bottle. He tends to appear if he hears his name or any word that appears in his cue, or if there is the sight of a bottle.

As for backstage we have Tim Algood played by Daniel Rainford. Tim is the stage manager, set putterupper, handyman, understudy for everything male, and running errands for Lloyd – a task which fate thwarts at the every opportunity.

Lloyds intellectual fencing with the cast had fallen on deaf ears and he had left them to their fate, taking on a new role but reappearing for a matinee in act two with pressing engagements of the relational kind.

The assistant stage manager is Poppy Norton-Taylor played by Nikhita Lesler. Poppy is understudy for all female roles, has a tendency to burst into tears at any criticism . . . well anything really. She is one corner of a love triangle which adds a certain spice to the proceedings To top it all she adds her own little complication to the by now dysfunctional band of Thespians as they prepare to put audiences out of their misery by heading to the tour's final week in Lowestoft – out of season you suspect.


Lloyd, right, tries to explain why the Sheik, played by Frederick looks identical to the playwright Philip, also played by Frederick, with Garry losing interest in the background

As for the stage manager of the real play, not the one in the play but the one in the play we came to see, Zachary Holton and assistants April Lindsay and Amy Palmer, have to conjure up a bottle of Scotch (Note to cast – keep away from Selsdon), two bunches of flowers and a spiky cactus, along with an endless supply of plates of sardines.

We have three acts and three versions of the first act of the play within a play, the aptly named Nothing On. Mercifully we are spared the full performance of a play whose saving grace is that desperate and financially creative producers might welcome it as a tax loss.

And from opening fumbled lines to closing malfunctioning curtains it is laugh out loud funny, even more so for anyone who has ever been involved in theatre, amateur or professional – backstage is where all the real drama is.

The entire cast is a delight from the timid as a mouse, burst into tears at the drop of a . . . well anything, Poppy, to the look at me, I’m acting Brooke, smile, pout, sexy stance. Then we have the happy, shambling, mine's a double Selsdon, and Lloyd with his degree in world theatre and his current Richard III production with its own war of the roses going on in North Wales.

And like modern football, its all about triangles with another one involving Belinda and Dotty, which brings in Garry and Frederick, with poor old Tim rushing here, there and everywhere, popping on and off as understudy burglar – and did we mention the Arab sheik.

Mayhem hardly describes it. We open with a woefully under rehearsed cast, have a second act with a lot more drama backstage than out front, and a final act with a production running like clockwork. Sadly the clock in question is broken so plot and script vanish out of the window as anything that can go wrong takes a great deal of pride in doing so.

Timing in slapstick and physical comedy is paramount and here it is quite impeccable. Simon Higlett’s set, both of them, are wonderful – hats off to the stage crew between acts two and three by the way. It has the requisite number of doors for farce, four downstairs and four up – when they open, or close, or handles don’t come off that is. Then we have trousers around ankles – several times, a bit of violence (cue nosebleed) a fall downstairs and the staple diet of farce – sexual assignations, even if they don’t get far past sardines on a plate.

There is the delightful contrast between the cast of Nothing On in the play on stage and then the same cast backstage with the bickering, clashes, violence (cue nosebleed again) and a bottle of Scotch, There is not a weak link to be seen anywhere.

Directed by Lyndsay Posner, the result is glorious, wonderful, magnificent, laugh out loud fun. A night of simply joyous entertainment. To 09-09-23 (if Brooke doesn’t walk out, Dotty and Belinda don’t kill each other, Frederick doesn't bleed to death, and they can keep Selsdon out of the bar)

Roger Clarke


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