Noises Off: Michael Frayn’s masterpiece remains unmatched for laugh-til-you-weep hilarity

Marvellous collective effort: the cast of Noises Off
Marvellous collective effort: the cast of Noises Off - Nobby Clark Photographer

We simply can’t get enough of Michael Frayn’s backstage farce. Frequently revived since its 1982 premiere, Lindsay Posner’s 40th-anniversary production began in Bath last year, and this Theatre Royal Haymarket run is the second Noises Off West End stint of 2023 – plus there’s a concurrent national tour. And no wonder: Frayn’s masterwork remains unsurpassed for pure laugh-til-you-weep hilarity. As we head into the cold, dark winter months, the NHS should be prescribing Noises Off tickets along with flu jabs.

Somehow, it doesn’t matter that many of today’s audience won’t be familiar with the creaky bedroom farces Frayn spoofs with play-within-a-play Nothing On – nor with that era’s rather unglamorous regional touring circuit. But the British preoccupations at the root of it all still ring pretty true: sex, property and taxes. So do Noises Off’s luvvie archetypes, from the arrogant, lecherous director to the resident gossip and the exploited backstage workers, and their increasingly false endearments.

Felicity Kendal led the Noises Off Phoenix Theatre production with aplomb when I caught it earlier this year, and she’s even better now. She brings sorrowfulness to Dotty Otley, the soap veteran who has very unwisely invested her life savings in this tour, while relishing absurdities like her word-salad scrambling of the dialogue. By the end she’s limping, wild-eyed and despairing; finding a plate of sardines in the wrong place really might tip her over the edge.

Alexander Hanson also excellently reprises his role as the bitterly sarcastic director Lloyd (“All my studies in world drama lie at your disposal,” he seethes at a needy actor questioning the plot mechanics at 1am), as does Jonathan Coy as said actor: the adorably dim Freddie, whose wife has just left him. When Lloyd invents a motivation for his character to carry a box offstage – “You’ve had a great fright, and you want something familiar to hold onto” – Coy hugs the box with heartbreaking affection.

Joining the Noises Off cast, Mathew Horne doesn’t quite land the joke of Garry’s inarticulacy, but comes into his own when he morphs into a jealous, axe-wielding rage monster. Tamzin Outhwaite brilliantly switches between the pragmatic Belinda and her RP-accented character – especially when she’s forced to vamp, and, trouper that she is, she breaks out the high kicks and shimmies – and Oscar Batterham gets great mileage out of the put-upon stage manager Tim.

But the best new turn comes from James Fleet, who, instead of going with the usual befuddled reading of the alcoholic Selsdon, imbues him with a regal entitlement. He also adds a great gag when Selsdon plays the burglar: his accent wanders across the West Country, up north, and settles somewhere in Ireland.

The prop-juggling, pratfalling, impeccably timed Act II backstage mime remains an utter marvel of a collective effort – the slapstick equivalent of the Royal Ballet in full flow. But the genius of Frayn’s piece is how it connects to an existential fear of chaos: aren’t we all, on some level, desperately juggling doors and sardines, fending off those “circumstances beyond our control” as we teeter over the abyss? If it wasn’t so true, we wouldn’t laugh so helplessly.

Until Dec 16. Tickets: