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Noises Off


Photo by Brett Boardman

Sydney Theatre Company and Qantas present NOISES OFF by Michael Frayn, in the Drama Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House.

NOISES OFF is an entirely delectable farce by Michael Frayn performed with hectic, high spirited impetuous ardour, and impeccable skills, by a deliciously drilled, hilarious team of actors/farceurs, under the assured guidance of Jonathan Biggins. Laughter can be, could be, the tonic de jour, you are seeking, to distract you, even momentarily, from the ‘farce’ of our present Australian political governings, parliaments, and the awful weighing-up of truly tense international political developments. If you need, and I did, a distraction, from the weary way of the world since man began to repeat himself, then this production by the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) may be it, may be worth taking in.

You could do a lot worse.

Apparently, sitting backstage during a performance of THE TWO OF US (1970) – a quartet of one act plays, Mr Frayn had written – while watching Lynne Redgrave and Richard Briers frantically changing costumes as they played five different characters before making calm looking entrances onto the stage proper, the idea of a backstage farce came to him. That idea became a short one-acter: EXITS (1978), which was, for our good fortune, seen by Michael Codren, the British Film and Theatrical producer, who then encouraged Mr Frayn to expand it to a full length piece. In February, 1982, NOISES OFF premiered at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith in London, directed by Australian, Michael Balkemore, and then transferred to the Savoy Theatre, in the West End, where it ran for four years. The play, subsequently, opened on Broadway, in the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, and played for 553 performances. It has been revived many times in those cities and, of course, seen all over the world. This may be the fourth or fifth production that I have seen of it, in Sydney, over the years. (Two of them at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) – by Adam Cook and Rodney Fisher – in the old NIDA course curricula, when comedy, the most difficult genre of all, was given a full term of study for the artists in training, culminating in a production of a play of daunting challenge – those were the days). Mr Frayn has continued to work on the text, the last time for the 2000 National Theatre production for the Director, Jeremy Sams – there are interesting variations between the 1982 version and the 2000 text, and they mostly are re-writes and tinkerings in the third act.

The play in three acts, records the trials and deteriorating tribulations, over several months, both artistic and personal, of a group of artists, rehearsing and performing a truly silly (fictional) farce called, NOTHING ON, on a provincial tour – think, NO SEX PLEASE, WE’RE BRITISH (1971) by Alistair Foot and Anthony Marriottt , a play condemned by the critics that ran from 1971-1987 to sell out audiences,in London, and you have got it. Act one introduces us to the characters at the final dress rehearsal and is a gently comic ‘set-up’ for the high farce ‘pay-off’ of the backstage mayhem, shown to us in act two, almost all in ‘dumb show’, followed on in the final third act by almost cataclysmic comic chaos at the final performance of the ‘tour’.

The vulgar design of this fictional company’s production: “Ostar Productions Ltd”, is frighteningly, endearingly accurate, created by Gina Boxhall (aka, Mark Thompson). The costumes and wig design by Patsy Hemming (aka, Julie Lynch) are witty and near-gross exaggerations of character comic types and of the 1970’s era – no, not at all similar to Michael Wilkinson’s AMERICAN HUSTLE gear and wigs, but just as eerily nostalgic, in their own way. The lighting by Rod Wray (aka, Nigel Levings) has all the lush nostalgic tinge of the genre, and the period.

All the ensemble are synchronistically choreographed to within inches of their lives, “accelerating the truth(s)” of the plot of the play: Alan Dukes, Lindsay Farris, Marcus Graham, Danielle King and Tracy Mann. Special mention must be given to the ‘warhorse’ of this cast, Ron Haddrick, who makes a very welcome and delicious appearance as the old soak, Selsdon Mowbray – his timing, physically, and especially vocally, impeccable – a role model for all to watch to learn some “tricks of the trade” from. Ash Ricardo, playing Brooke Ashton, is as “sexy as all hell” and brings a clever actor’s intelligence to incarnate a stock, blonde dimwit with sometimes cross-eyed contact pop-outs for unfailing hilarious reward. Genevieve Lemon playing the stalwart Dotty Otley, carries much of the comic “heavy lifting” of the first act to reap wonderfully deserved laughter in the latter acts – a joy to watch her at work.

While the “star” of this ensemble must be Josh McConville, who creates a character type with not only great affection and humanity (even seeming to make THAT costume appear as clothing, that a “real” person would dare to wear), but who also comes ‘armed’ with an arsenal of fabulous elastic gymnastic flexibilities, engaging vibrantly with doors and stairs (especially, stairs, and later, sardines!) and many, many juggled props, so much so, that he recalls the beloved physical comics of those silent movie days of yesteryear, that have brought one to floods of tears of joy. One sensed this actor’s comic range in the STC production of IN THE NEXT ROOM (OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY, a year, or so ago, and it is entirely rewarding to see Mr McConville stretched to reveal this level of capacity at not just comedy, but in the very, very demanding world of farce. Consider the range of endeavours that Mr McConville has given us in the past few years: THE BOYS (terrifically frightening – for which he won the 2012 Sydney Theatre Award for Best Actor), THE CALL, STRANGE ATTRACTOR, THE SERVANT OF TWO MASTERS and even in the relatively small role as Tybalt in ROMEO AND JULIET last year, and one might reflect that here is an actor of an extraordinary range of gifts. It suggests, to me, that the classic roles of the theatre are all worth his relish and talent – one can look forward to them, one hopes.

One can read elsewhere a slight need to intellectually justify or explain this play for being part of the Sydney theatre repertoire, but, really there is no need. NOISES OFF sits at the pinnacle of farcical comedies written in the recent past, (Richard Bean’s ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS a recent competitor on the scene), and is an undoubted modern CLASSIC, and to do well, requires masterly degrees of skill and discipline from all the artists. It is an Everest challenge and when conquered is more than a “ton of laughter” avalanche. This production should serve as a benchmark for laugh excellence for some time to come.

Andrew Upton confesses in his Message in the program:

NOISES OFF is a play that I have never seen and found so difficult to read that it took me three years to get to the end of the script.

Thank goodness he managed it, and for him to declare, three years after beginning reading: “I think it is a masterclass in comic theatrical writing.” – an understatement, for sure?! Mr Frayn, a speaker of Russian, is famous for his still fluid translations of the Chekhov plays, and his adaptation of PLATONOV, known as WILD HONEY,  would be a role, for Mr McConville, to tackle, indeed. (How about a Vershinin or Tuzenbach, or an Oswald?)

“Getting on, getting off” rails the director, Lloyd Dallas.”Doors and sardines. That’s theatre, that’s life.’ And, yes,” says Benedict Nightingale in his book GREAT MOMENTS IN THE THEATRE:

…almost all Frayn’s plays, comic or serious or both, involve our vain attempts to impose or create order and find meaning in a disorderly and maddeningly complex world. COPENHAGEN (1998), which many think his masterpiece, is largely about the inscrutable motives of Heisenberg, discoverer of the uncertainty principle …” [1]

Certainly in the present world of 2014, the uncertainty principle is being ‘tolled’ and felt throughout the land. To plant such thoughts in a parody of a British sex farce called NOTHING ON is quite an achievement, don’t you think? Or, let’s rather not concern ourselves with too much thinking, and just laugh and laugh our ‘blues’ away – at least for the few hours of NOISES OFF, down at the Sydney Opera House.

Directing this play is no simple task, and much credit must go to Jonathan Biggins. Congratulations.

Highly Recommended. I loved it.


  1. GREAT MOMENTS IN THE THEATRE by Benedict Nightingale. 2012, Oberon Books, London