||This article uses bare URLs for citations. (May 2013)|
Poster for the 2001 Broadway revival
|Written by||Michael Frayn|
|Subject||Play within a play|
Noises Off is a 1982 play by the English playwright Michael Frayn. The idea for it came in 1970, when Frayn was watching from the wings a performance of The Two of Us, a farce that he had written for Lynn Redgrave. He said, "It was funnier from behind than in front, and I thought that one day I must write a farce from behind." The prototype, a short-lived one-act play called Exits, was written and performed in 1977. At the request of his associate, Michael Codron, Frayn expanded this into what would become Noises Off. It takes its title from the theatrical stage direction indicating sounds coming from offstage.
 Characters of Noises Off
- Lloyd Dallas: The director of a play-within-the-play, called Nothing On. Temperamental. Part of a love triangle involving Poppy and Brooke.
- Dotty Otley: A late-middle-aged actress. Forgetful. Has a romantic interest in Garry, and provokes him by showing interest in Freddy.
- Garry Lejeune: A stuttering actor, easily fired up. Has a romantic interest in Dotty, and is driven by jealousy to attack Freddy repeatedly. His speech impediment disappears onstage. Constantly stutters and ends sentences with "you know..."
- Frederick (Freddy) Fellowes: Has a serious fear of violence and blood. Gets nosebleeds easily. Lacks confidence and is rather dim-witted and pompous.
- Belinda Blair: Cheerful and sensible, a reliable actress. Has a rather protective attitude towards Freddy.
- Poppy Norton-Taylor: Assistant Stage Manager. Emotional and over-sensitive, and envious of Brooke, whom she understudies. Part of the Lloyd-Poppy-Brooke love triangle.
- Selsdon Mowbray: Elderly and with actorly mannerisms. If he is not in sight while rehearsing, the stage crew must find him before he finds the whisky.
- Timothy Allgood: An over-worked Stage Manager. Understudies Selsdon and Freddy.
- Brooke Ashton: A young inexperienced actress from London. There are hints (or is it just professional maliciousness between actors?) that she has been a porn star. She pays no attention to others, either in performance or backstage. She rarely takes direction, and persists in role regardless of any interruption. She is always losing her contact lenses. Part of the Lloyd–Poppy–Brooke love triangle.
 Characters of the play-within-the-play, Nothing On
- Mrs. Clackett (Dotty): Housekeeper for the Brents' home in England. Hospitable, though slow.
- Roger (Garry): Estate agent looking to let Flavia's and Philip's house.
- Vicki (Brooke): Works for the tax authorities and is trying to woo Roger.
- Philip Brent (Freddy): Lives out of the country with his wife Flavia to avoid paying taxes and is on a secret visit.
- Flavia Brent (Belinda): Philip Brent's wife. She is dependable, though not one for household duties.
- Burglar (Selsdon): Old man in his seventies, breaking into the Brents' house.
- Sheikh (Freddy): Interested in renting the house.
Each of the three acts of Noises Off contains a performance of the first act of a play within a play, a poor farce called Nothing On. The three acts of Noises Off are each named "Act One" on the contents page of the script, though they are labelled normally in the body of the script; and the programme for Noises Off will include, provided by the author, a comprehensive programme for the Weston-super-Mare run of Nothing On, including spoof advertisements and acknowledgements to the providers of mysterious props that do not actually appear (e.g. stethoscope, hospital trolley, and straitjacket). Nothing is seen of the rest of Nothing On.
Nothing On is the type of play in which young girls run about in their underwear, old men drop their trousers, and many doors continually bang open and shut. It is set in "a delightful 16th-century posset mill", modernised by the current owners and available to let while they are abroad; the fictional playwright is appropriately named Robin Housemonger.
Act One is set at the dress rehearsal at the (fictional) Grand Theatre in Weston-super-Mare; the cast are hopelessly unready, and baffled by entrances and exits, missed cues, missed lines, and bothersome props, including several plates of sardines.
Act Two shows a Wednesday matinée performance one month later, at the (again fictional) Theatre Royal in Ashton-under-Lyne. In this act, the play is seen from backstage, providing a view that emphasises the deteriorating relationships between the cast that lead to offstage shenanigans and onstage bedlam. The play falls into disorder before the curtain falls.
In Act Three, we see a performance near the end of the ten-week run, at the (still fictional) Municipal Theatre in Stockton-on-Tees, when personal friction has continued to increase. The actors remain determined at all costs to cover up the mounting series of mishaps, but it is not long before the plot has to be abandoned entirely and the more coherent characters are obliged to take a lead in ad-libbing somehow towards some sort of end.
Much of the comedy emerges from the subtle variations in each version as character flaws play off each other off-stage to undermine on-stage performance, with a great deal of slapstick. The contrast between players' on-stage and off-stage personalities is also a source of comic dissonance.
 Production history
The play premièred at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, London in 1982, directed by Michael Blakemore and starring Patricia Routledge, Paul Eddington, and Nicky Henson. It opened to universally ecstatic reviews and shortly after transferred to the Savoy Theatre in the West End, where it ran until 1987 with five successive casts. It won the Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy.
On December 11, 1983, a production directed again by Blakemore and starring Dorothy Loudon, Victor Garber, Brian Murray, Deborah Rush, Douglas Seale, and Amy Wright opened in New York City at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, on Broadway, where it ran for 553 performances. It earned Tony Award nominations for Best Play and for Blakemore, Rush, and Seale, and won a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Ensemble.
Noises Off has become a staple of both professional theatre companies and community theatres on both sides of the Atlantic. On October 5, 2000, the National Theatre in London mounted a revival, directed by Jeremy Sams and starring Patricia Hodge, Peter Egan and Aden Gillett, that ran for two years, transferring to the Piccadilly Theatre in the West End on May 14, 2001 with Lynn Redgrave and Stephen Mangan replacing Hodge and Egan, respectively. Sams' production transferred to Broadway, again at the Brooks Atkinson, on November 1, 2001, with Patti LuPone, Peter Gallagher, Faith Prince, T.R. Knight, and Katie Finneran. The production was nominated for a Tony and Drama Desk Award as Best Revival of a Play, and Finneran was named Best Featured Actress by both groups.
Frayn has repeatedly rewritten the play over the years. The last revision was in 2000 at the request of Jeremy Sams. There are numerous differences between the 1982 and 2000 scripts. Some new sequences have been added (e.g., an introduction to Act Three, in which Tim, the Company Stage Manager, and Poppy, the Assistant Stage Manager, make simultaneous apologies — the former in front of the curtain, the latter over the PA — for the delay in the performance). Other sequences have been altered or cut entirely. References that tend to date the play (such as Mrs. Clackett's to the Brents having colour television) have been eliminated or rewritten.
The most recent revival ran from December 3, 2011 to March 10, 2012 at the Old Vic Theatre, directed by Lindsay Posner and starring Jonathan Coy, Janie Dee, Robert Glenister, Jamie Glover, Celia Imrie, Karl Johnson, Aisling Loftus, Amy Nuttall and Paul Ready. This production transferred to the Novello Theatre in the West End from March 24 to June 30, 2012, and then toured England with a different cast.
 Film adaptation
In 1992, the play was adapted for the screen by Marty Kaplan. The film, directed by Peter Bogdanovich and starring Carol Burnett, Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve, John Ritter, Nicollette Sheridan, Denholm Elliott, Julie Hagerty, Mark Linn-Baker and Marilu Henner, received mixed reviews, with many critics noting it was too much of a theatrical piece to translate well to the screen. Frank Rich, who had called it "the funniest play written in my lifetime", wrote that the film is "one of the worst ever made."
- B. K. Mehlman review, http://www.curtainup.com/noisesoff.html.
- This is of course a joke by Frayn, which has caught out earlier Wiki-editors who have solemnly commented "it is uncertain what a posset mill might be. This may be a play on the phrase to mill a posset, attested in the Oxford English Dictionary as meaning to stir ingredients to make a posset." However, that comment would be typical of Frayn himself, and it is not impossible that he was the editor in question: the fake programme for Nothing On provided by the script includes its own explanation, as follows: "In a posset-mill production was maintained throughout the year by allowing the milk to run into a heated curdling chamber where the flow of incoming ale or vinegar was ingeniously harnessed to operate a simple kind of theatrical thundersheet. The product was then packed in small 'yoggy pots' made from the scrota of wild yogs".
- A posset was a medieval beverage made of curdled milk. See article on Round the Horne, a 1960s radio show which made posset a humorous word in English comedy.
- The Grand Pier in Weston-super-Mare included a large theatre when it opened in 1904, but the theatre was destroyed by a fire in 1930 (http://www.grandpierwsm.co.uk/seasidehistory.html).
- Multiple sources report that Act Two is set on opening night. The plot synopsis here describes the script published in 2000, in which Michael Frayn notes that the play has been rewritten at least seven times.
- However, an Ashton-under-Lyne theatre named Royal is listed in the tour of a 1908 production at http://www.lyceumtheatre.net/images/Article3.txt.
- Time Out File Guide 13, http://www.timeout.com/film/63480.html
- Review by Rita Kempley, Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/movies/videos/noisesoffpg13kempley_a0a2a9.htm
- The Hot Seat, by Frank Rich.
- Noises Off at the Internet Broadway Database
- Noises Off (2001 revival) at the Internet Broadway Database
- Review of Broadway revival by Matthew Murray, November 1, 2001