January 10, 2002: Frayne, Noises Off

Piccadilly Theatre. Evening

One of the largest in London when it was built in 1928, this theatre has a relatively small proscenium stage that makes it perfectly accessible for certain kinds of plays, Noises Off being one of them. Up to now, I have just missed seeing some production or other of this marvelous take-off on the theatre and all that can go wrong when you’re doing comedy, or farce. In this case, we get a play-within-a-play approach: a bunch of semi-pro actors are trying to survive during the production of a play called Nothing On (get it?). The program for Nothing On, a nice send-up of theatre programs and their advertisements, is included as an insert in the program for Noises Off. Frayne’s even more ingenious device is to show us only Act I of Nothing On, but to show it three separate times, once in a final, catastrophic rehearsal, and twice more on tour. And an even more wonder­ful invention is to make the first and third run-throughs be seen from the audience’s point of view, while the second is seen from backstage.

The result is a truly brilliant farce in the genre of true classic British farce, in which all the characters are constantly being frustrated or thwarted by an increasingly hostile world — in this case, two worlds: the world of failing or failed human relationships, and the world of the theatre, where risk is the only constant and success is a will-o’-the-wisp. I haven’t laughed so hard in a long time. As for the requisite beautiful girl in her underwear — the sine-qua-non (for male viewers like me) of contemporary farce from Feydeau on — that was full of pleasure too. Nice thing about farce is that you get to entertain lustful fantasies of connection with young, nubile women and never get called to account for it afterwards. They should do farce more often, at least if they do it as well as these impeccably timed actors can do it. Whoever said farce was silly didn’t know what he was talking about. It gets at you where you live.




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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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