Updated: Aug 31
Review by Raphael Kohn
One of the most famous comedy plays of the 20th century, you say? On the main stage of the Birmingham Rep theatre for three weeks for a summer season in Birmingham before another West End run, you say? I’m sold. Michael Frayn’s legendary comedy, of actors preparing and performing a sex farce called ‘Nothing On’ has opened in the Birmingham Rep theatre – and it’s a frantic, feverishly funny farce.
Debuting in 1982, Noises Off is a legendary play in which a troupe of actors engage in their technical rehearsal of ‘Nothing On’ (in the first act), a matinée performance during the run (in the second act) and finally a performance towards the end of the tour (in the third act). This forms a rather brilliant ‘play-within-a-play’ structure, which offers us an insight into both the actors’ (and the director’s and stagehands’) personal lives and relationships but also the play itself that is being put on. As for the actors and crew themselves – they are an eccentric bunch – a has-been actor now forgetting lines all the time, a self-important lead actor, a young, inexperienced performer, and more, which form a witty and havoc-filled ensemble.
But what makes Noises Off so hilarious is the genius way it is written – with the ‘mistakes’ in the ‘rehearsal’ (the first act of the play) setting up some absolutely brilliant jokes and gags in the second and third acts, which are by and large funnier than the first as the pace picks up and the chaos, now fully set up, begins to unfold so rapidly and frenetically. It’s a showcase of perfectly controlled, choreographed chaos as the characters’ relationships break down, form and descend into madness.
Despite the material being slightly dated now, it is brought to life excellently in Lindsay Posner’s production. With endless opening and closing doors in Simon Higlett’s set with more plates of sardines than one would see in a fish restaurant, it is the perfect set for this madcap farce. As the set changes in the interval to show us a reverse view of the set of ‘Nothing On’, it becomes even funnier to relive the same moments through a reverse view of the stage, with the ridiculous quirks of the set and action being visible ‘from behind’ – we see the same entrances and exits that we saw in the first act, but even more ridiculous now we know what will happen.
None of this, of course, would be successful without a good cast – and the boards of the Birmingham Rep are once again being trodden by talent. In love with power are Dan Fredenburgh’s Garry Lejeune and Simon Shepherd’s Lloyd Dallas, the lead star and director of ‘Nothing On’ respectively. In turn embodying Basil Fawlty with their rage and maddened sprinting across the stage, Fredenburgh and Shepherd are a pair of prime actors. Liza Goddard is charmingly humourous as Dotty Otley, while Lucy Robinson revels in the madness of what is happening onstage in her turn as Belinda Blair.
Perhaps bringing the most laughs was Matthew Kelly’s Selsdon Mowbray, the older actor of the company, who struggles with alcohol addiction. While that in itself is not particularly funny, it is the way that Kelly hobbles around the stage and lusts after the constantly disappearing and reappearing bottle of whisky that truly makes his performance a delight. Simon Coates is also a joy as Frederick Fellowes, bumbling around, forgetting his lines and blocking.
Lisa Ambalayar is a true comedic genius with her portrayal of inexperienced (as a nice way of saying ‘bad’) actor Brooke Ashton. Normally I would hate to call an actor bad, but I think it’s fair to say such things about a fictional actor, especially one played with so much talent as Ambalayar. Trying to hold everything together as she keeps track with saying her lines despite everything failing around her, Ambalayar is brilliant in her role. Daniel Rainford and Nikhita Lesler, playing stagehands Tim Allgood and Poppy Norton-Taylor respectively, are hilarious as their belittled and hard-working characters. While it felt at times as if the ensemble, as a whole, did not quite strike the balance of the camp overacting called for in the script with managing to deliver punchlines perfectly, the cast as a whole are a fine ensemble of talent.
It’s hilarious, it’s fast-paced and it’ll hurt your sides from laughing – Noises Off at the Birmingham Rep is just the tonic for the increasingly wet and un-summery days to come over the next few weeks in Birmingham. It’s got a fizzling script behind it and a funny ensemble – 3 weeks is far too short a run for this hilarious romp of theatrical mayhem.
Noises Off plays at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre until 9th September 2023, then touring. Tickets are available from https://www.birmingham-rep.co.uk/whats-on/noises-off/
Photos by Pamela Raith