Noises Off – Review – Sheffield Lyceum Theatre

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By Clare Jenkins, November 2023

When Noises Off was first staged at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith in 1982, No Sex Please, We’re British was still running in the West End. Saucy bedroom farces were alive and reasonably well, as was the Brian Rix tradition of trouser-dropping.

Michael Frayn capitalised on all that by writing this play-within-a-play parody about a pretty hopeless touring company rehearsing a farce called ‘Nothing On’. The shambolic cast forget their lines, lose their contact lenses, mislay their plate of sardines (a running gag), all the while madly disappearing and appearing from behind doors in a ‘delightful 16th century posset mill, 25 miles from London’.

Forty years later, and this multi-award-winning crowd-pleaser is still doing the rounds: Lindsay Posner’s 2011 production is currently on its fourth West End revival as well as this national tour. So it must be doing something right. The question is: what?

It’s still raising laughs, and certainly the timing here is 5-star, as is the energy of the nine-strong cast. Simon Higlett’s sets are pretty celestial, too. But at times the script feels stale (who nowadays will get the reference to Dame Myra Hess? Or to “The royal what’s-it-called on the telly”?), the dropped trousers and prickly-cactus-up-the-bum jokes feel hackneyed, and the appearance of an Arab ‘sheikh’ (man with white bath towel over his head) and his black-clad wife (totally submerged in a black bedsheet) surely belong to a very different age.

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“Indisputably clever”

To misquote Eric Morecambe: it’s playing all the right notes, and in the right order, but something’s missing. That old stardust, perhaps?

The premise is indisputably clever: Act One shows us the late-night final dress rehearsal of ‘Nothing On’, where director Lloyd Dallas (an increasingly exasperated Simon Shepherd) is trying to ensure that his cast are all line- and action-perfect. Except they aren’t. Ex-sitcom star Dotty Otley (a valiant Liza Goddard) as the housekeeper keeps mislaying her plate of sardines, the estate agent (Dan Fredenburgh) can’t get the bedroom door to open, his younger would-be lover (Lisa Ambalavanar) is all wildly over-the-top gestures, and house owner Freddie (Simon Coates) keeps stepping out of his role to ask earnest last-minute questions about his props.

Act Two shows us the first night – but from backstage, as personalities clash, a love-triangle emerges, and understudies have to be found to cover for ageing alcoholic actor Selsdon Mowbray (Matthew Kelly, lumbering round looking for where he last hid his whisky bottle). That’s the genius of the play: we hear the script, but from the other side of the set. (Curiously, it’s when all the cast are facing us that the lines are sometimes inaudible).

Backstage, the actors engage in an extended sequence of silent comedy. They mime and gurn and race in and out of doors, up and down stairs, either leaving props behind or carrying the wrong ones onstage, whirling round like a pink-clad spinning-top (Lucy Robinson as the mistress of the house), tying shoelaces together with hobbling, potentially disastrous, results. It’s impressive, but somehow mechanical.

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“Everything is collapsing”

The final act shows the cast at the end of their tour, with many tired references to Stockton-on-Tees, Worksop and Ashton-under-Lyne (yet none to Basingstoke or Berkhamsted). By now, they’ve all lost the plot – as well as the sardines – and everything is collapsing onto chaos.

Dotty is dishevelled, careworn and uncaring, they’re all adlibbing and improvising, giving end-of-tether performances. The curtain-up announcements are hopelessly garbled, the props fall apart, even the plaster ducks on the wall now droop their heads in despair.

As Tim, the hapless, silly-ass stagehand (Daniel Rainford), says as the final curtain refuses to budge, “our long and highly successful production is now on its very last legs”. Isn’t it perhaps time to rest – and then refresh – it?

‘Noises Off’ is at Sheffield Lyceum Theatre until Saturday 2nd December


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