Liam Rudden: It’ll be all right on the night

Maureen Beattie plays the role of Dottie Otley. Picture: Johann Persson
Maureen Beattie plays the role of Dottie Otley. Picture: Johann Persson
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Liam Rudden previews the farcical Noises Off...

THERE’S backstage mayhem on stage at The King’s this week as the new touring production of Noises Off pops in. If you like a good old-fashioned farce, this is the one for you.

You can tell it’s a farce by the names associated with it. The last time it was here, in 1991, On The Buses star Anna Karen (she played Olive) stole the show as Dottie Otley, the role played this time around by Maureen Beattie, who says, “An awful lot of people both in and out of the theatrical profession think Noises Off is the funniest play ever written.

“Now I’ve been on the road with it for ten weeks I think they’re probably right. It’s an absolute joy to go on stage every night and hear an audience laugh so uproariously. A tonic for the actors and audience alike.”

For those yet to ‘roll in the aisles with laughter’ at Michael Frayn’s hilarious look at the life of a dysfunctional theatre company, Noises Off is a play within a play. Hurtling along at breakneck speed it follows the backstage antics as the company stumble their way through rehearsals to a shambolic first night and disastrous final performance.

Frayn cites a visit backstage during a performance of The Two Of Us, his London debut, as the inspiration for the piece.

He recalls, “The show, a series of two-handers, starred Richard Briers and Lynn Redgrave and in the closing piece, a farce, they played five characters between them.

“Therefore, there had to be a series of quick changes. When I saw what that entailed, I thought that it was funnier than anything that was happening on stage and I decided that I’d like to write a farce, viewed from behind-the-scenes.”

Writing Noises Off was difficult, however, he admits.

“It was like trying to make a sculpture out of jelly. Every time you change something in one of the acts it bulges out in the other two.

“I didn’t know whether actors would agree to perform a large part of the play not to the audience but to the back wall of the theatre - or even if they could learn to perform all the backstage action of Act Two in mime.

“I often cursed the day I ever decided to write it. Michael Blakemore, the director of the first production, promised to give the play his best shot, but said he had really no idea whether it would work or not.”

More than three decades and a few rewrites later, Noises Off has conquered not just London’s West End, but New York’s Broadway too.

It’s a while since it’s been in the Capital, so catch it while you can.

Noises Off, King’s Theatre, Leven Street, tonight-Saturday, 7.30pm, £14-£29.50, 0131-529 6000