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Noises Off is a 1982 play by English playwright Michael Frayn. The idea for it was born in 1970, when Frayn was standing in the wings watching a performance of Chinamen, a farce that he had written for Lynn Redgrave. According to the playwright, "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 entitled Exits, was written and performed in 1977. At the request of associate Michael Codron, Frayn expanded the play into what would become Noises Off.

Characters of Noises Off

  • Lloyd Dallas: The director of the play, Nothing On. Temperamental. One third of a Lloyd–Poppy–Brooke love triangle.


  • Dotty Otley: A late-middle-aged actress. Forgetful. Dating Garry, though she attempts to make him jealous by meeting with Fred.


  • Garry Lejeune: A stuttering actor, easily fired up, repeatedly tries to attack Fred after believing that Dotty was cheating on him with Fred. Speech affectations disappear onstage but are ever-present offstage. Always is stuttering and completing sentences with, "you know..." Dating Dotty.


  • Frederick Fellows: An actor with a serious fear of violence and blood. Gets nosebleeds easily. Often questions the meaning of his lines and moves. Blames himself often for things going wrong.


  • Belinda Blair: Cheerful and sensible, a reliable actress. She may have feelings for Fred.


  • Poppy Norton-Taylor: Assistant Stage Manager. Emotional and over-sensitive, and jealous of Brooke, whom she understudies. Carrying Lloyd's child. One-third of a Lloyd-Poppy-Brooke love triangle.


  • Selsdon Mowbray: An elderly alcoholic man who hides his bottles onstage. If he is not in sight while rehearsing, the stage crew must find him before he passes out.


  • Timothy Allgood: Stage Manager. Understudies Selsdon and Freddy.


  • Brooke Ashton: A young inexperienced actress from London. It is suggested she is a porn star. Pays no attention to other performers, neither in performance nor backstage. She rarely takes stage direction, and continues performing regardless of any other action onstage. Is always losing her contact lenses. One-third of a Lloyd–Poppy–Brooke love triangle.


Characters of Nothing On

  • Mrs. Clackett (Dotty): Housekeeper for the Brent's home in England. Hospitable, though slow.


  • Roger (Garry): Real estate agent that is attempting to rent Flavia and Phillip's home, but uses it for his own personal benefit.


  • Vicky (Brooke): Works for Inland Revenue and is trying to woo Roger.


  • Phillip Brent (Fred): Lives out of the country with his wife Flavia to avoid paying taxes. He enters the country knowing that if he is caught by Inland Revenue, he will lose most of the year's income.


  • Flavia Brent (Belinda): Phillip Brent's wife. She is dependable, though not one for household duties.


  • Burglar (Selsdon): Old man in his seventies, breaking into the Brent's home.


Plot

In his plot for Noises Off, Frayn plays on the concept of a play within a play, in this case a dreadful sex comedy titled Nothing On—the type of play in which young girls run about in their underwear, old men drop their trousers, and many doors continually open and shut. Nothing On is set in "a delightful 16th-century posset mill" that has been converted to a modern dwelling for which renters are solicited; the fictional playwright is appropriately named Robin Housemonger. Each of the three acts of Noises Off contains a performance of the first act of Nothing On.The three acts of Noises Off are each named "Act One" on the contents page of the script,[2] though they are labeled normally in the body of the script. Nothing is seen of the rest of Nothing On, although the program[5] acknowledges the source of props (stethoscope, hospital trolley, and straitjacket) that do not appear in Act One.

Act One is set at the dress rehearsal, the night before opening at the (fictional) Grand Theatre in Weston-super-Maremarker, with the cast still fumbling with entrances and exits, missed cues, misspoken lines, and bothersome props, most notably several plates of sardines.

Act Two portrays a Wednesday matinee performance one month laterMultiple sources report that Act Two is set on opening night. The plot synopsis here describes the script published in 2000[2], in which Michael Frayn notes that the play has been rewritten at least seven times.[3], at the (again fictional) Theatre Royal in Ashton-under-Lynemarker. In this act, the play is seen from backstage, providing a view that reveals the deteriorating personal relationships among the cast that have led to offstage shenanigans and onstage bedlam. Also, there appears to be no true resolution. The play simply falls into turmoil and disorder before the curtain is pulled.

In Act Three, we see a performance near the end of the ten-week run, at the (still fictional) Municipal Theatre in Stockton-on-Teesmarker, when personal friction has continued to increase and everyone is bored and anxious to be done with the play. The actors attempt to cover up a series of mishaps but only compound the problems and draw attention to the bungling performance.

Much of the comedy emerges from the subtle variations in each version as off-stage chaos affects 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

In theatrical stage directions, the term "noises off" specifies sounds that are meant to originate offstage. The play premiered at the Lyric Theatremarker, Hammersmithmarker, Londonmarker in 1982, directed by Michael Blakemore and starring Patricia Routledge, Paul Eddington, and Nicky Henson. (Included within the show's program was a facsimile of a program for a play called Nothing On, complete with biographical notes for the fictitious cast.) It opened to universally ecstatic reviews and shortly after transferred to the West Endmarker's Savoy Theatremarker in The Strandmarker, 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 Citymarker at the Brooks Atkinson Theatremarker, 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 theaters on both sides of the Atlanticmarker. On October 5, 2000, the National Theatremarker 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 Theatremarker in the West Endmarker 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 continually rewritten the play over the years, the last time being in 2000 at the request of Jeremy Sams. There are numerous differences between the scripts published in 1982 and 2000. 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.

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, Nicolette 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."

References

  1. B. K. Mehlman review, http://www.curtainup.com/noisesoff.html.
  2. A posset was a popular medieval beverage made of curdled milk, but 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.
  3. See article on Round the Horne, a 1960s radio show which made posset a humorous word in English comedy.
  4. The Grand Pier in Weston-super-Mare included a large theatre when it opened in 1904, but the theatre was destroyed by a 1930 fire, according to http://www.grandpierwsm.co.uk/seasidehistory.html.
  5. 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.
  6. Time Out File Guide 13, http://www.timeout.com/film/63480.html
  7. Review by Rita Kempley, Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/movies/videos/noisesoffpg13kempley_a0a2a9.htm
  8. http://www.britishtheatreguide.info/reviews/noisesofftour-rev.htm
  9. The Hot Seat, by Frank Rich.


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