Noises Off was written in 1982 play by artistic polymath Michael Frayn, a journalist, philosopher, and novelist as well as playwright. It was inspired in 1970, when Frayn was watching from the wings a performance of his own The Two of Us, “It was funnier from behind than in front, and I thought that one day I must write a farce from behind.” And so the seeds were sown for this brilliant back-to-front farce about a dysfunctional touring company on the last leg of its tour – or simply on its last legs.
Subject to periodic revision by Frayn, the last in 2000, the script is fresh and sharp, exploring his trademark fascination with the battle between the forces of order and disorder, and our search for happiness in our lives. Metaphors dance tantalisingly before our eyes. A tax evader, caught with his trousers round his ankles watches his second home descend into anarchy, while all around seem obsessed with sardines.
Director Emily Armstrong has assembled a very strong cast. Unusually for a farc,e it does not mainly comprise conventional warring couples. It does however have seven doors, a harbinger of things to come. There are doors that stick when they should open, doors that swing open when they ought to be closed, doors viewed from the back, and doors viewed from the front.
Denise Phillips is a delight as housekeeper Dotty, a surreal fusion of Hilda Ogden and Mrs Brown, who is preoccupied with sardines as the world revolves around her. Her paramour Roger, energetically played by Dexter Whitehead ,suffers and explodes, as his older girlfriend finds herself in increasingly preposterous positions, leaving him hopping mad.
Hardworking Emily also stars as Vicki, Roger’s other love interest, the briefness of her costumes being in inverse proportion to her stage impact. As well as the accident-prone cast, the stage management team add to the confusion, putting out front-of-house calls that the performance will commence in one minute, three minutes, two minutes and finally three minutes again prompting the wonderful lament: “there’s a lot of OAP’s out there who haven’t got long to go.”
There’s a satisfying depth to the cast, epitomised by Barrie Atchison as Selsdon Mowbay , the old stager whose secret hoards of whisky keep having to be removed from just about everywhere as he continually breaks in through a window at varying stages of the plot, planned, and unplanned.
The pivotal second act is handled adroitly, with skill, timing and energy, after the slower paced, scene setting, first act. Inventive, funny and incessant, I, along with the rest of the audience, roared with laughter.
Rosemary Richmond and Ann Morris deserve particular praise for some well observed costuming, not least with Alison Daly’s sumptuous over the top print “Brit ex pat in Marbella” dress, John Islip and his team take on the huge task of producing a front of house and back of house set, and win. The only technical downside is that the challenge of turning the entire set round for Act Three without an interval is considerable.
This production was dedicated to long serving Sutton Arts member Davina Barnes, who played the part of Dotty in 1988, and sadly passed away in February of this year. Emily Armstrong, the cast, and the Society did her proud with this fine production which runs till Saturday 12th February.