Monday, 30 January 2023

REVIEW: Noises Off at the Phoenix Theatre

Farce is one of the finest theatrical traditions rooted in the British obsession with manners and respectability. A heady brew of slapstick, confusion and mixed messaging between frustrated characters. From Shakespeare through Oscar Wilde to Noel Coward and more recently Henry Lewis, the genre constantly reinvents itself. Noises Off by Michael Frayn is one of the best and makes a welcome return to the West End at the Phoenix Theatre.

This is the classic play within a play, as a stressed company of actors rehearse for a provincial run of 'Nothing On'. The outer play splits into three distinct acts but portrays a single act from three different perspectives. First, there is the 'technical' or dress rehearsal, where all the glitches are supposedly ironed out. Secondly, the act is played on the first night but shown from backstage. And finally, the act is shown from the front of the house, where the backstage shenanigans and eventual consequences begin to make sense.

Like any good farce, it's a masterpiece of logistics and physical drama. Every trip, slip and miss-step is planned to the nth degree and executed without fault. There are genuine laugh-out-loud moments as the cast gamely gets to grips with the narrative and establishes their motivation. Unlike most plays, it has no need of a strong plot, as the visual gymnastics have more than enough energy to delight and compensate.

For all its jollity, Noises Off provides real insight into what goes on behind the scenes when a show is in progress. Michael Frayn was inspired to write the play when he watched from the wings of another production. He obviously noted the superstitions, habits and foibles of actors before they deliver a performance; and captured a tantalising glimpse of the human condition.

The stellar cast has an absolute ball with a play that does exactly what it says on the tin. A host of familiar faces from film and TV give the production a helpful reference point. Felicity Kendal plays Dottie, an actor continually on the verge of a nervous breakdown; Matthew Kelly does a turn as Selsdon, an elder statesman with a fondness for the odd tipple while Tracy-Ann Oberman is in full diva mode as Belinda. The Phoenix Theatre has never looked better with its Italian-styled interior and epitome of West End splendour. The second interval required by the play's structure slows the pace somewhat. But is a small price to pay for a superior night out at the theatre.

Review by Brian Penn

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: G2 Dress Circle | Price of Ticket: £55
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