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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me on Twitter at MarkFFisher, WriteAboutTheat and LimelightXTC I am a freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. I am also editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide.
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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Noises Off, theatre review

Published in Northings

Noises Off

Pitlochry Festival Theatre, Pitlochry, 9 June 2010, and in repertory until October

AFTER LAST year's all-Scottish season at Pitlochry, the theatre has lined up a set of plays that look at the idea of going away. You probably wouldn't have spotted that if you hadn't read it in the programme, but it is hard to miss the coincidental theme that is running in parallel.

Just as Kiss Me Kate is about a theatre company staging a version of The Taming of the Shrew, so Noises Off is about a theatre company staging a fictitious old-school farce called Nothing On. Elsewhere in the summer repertoire, Rough Crossing is about two playwrights sailing towards a Broadway premiere, and Bus Stop features a nightclub singer and a Shakespeare scholar.

You have to be on your guard when theatre people start looking in at themselves, but Pitlochry is hardly the place for meta-theatrical conceits, so it is with much good-hearted silliness – not to mention breathless door-slamming – that it is giving an airing to Michael Frayn's brilliantly conceived comedy.

Noises Off is a case of a playwright having his farce and eating it – three times over, in fact. On one level, the play is a send-up of every farce that ever put laughs ahead of plausibility. It is about a third-rate touring company playing the backwater theatres of England with a nine-door farce that makes little narrative sense. They scarcely know their lines, still less what to do with their props and, in Ken Alexander's production, Jacqueline Dutoit even seems to be channelling the spirit of Julie Walter's Mrs Overall from Acorn Antiques.

But for all the preposterousness of Nothing On, it is actually a perfectly synchronised machine, generating near misses, confusion and sexual embarrassment with every opening door. You can imagine it being pretty funny if you saw it for real.

To demonstrate his admiration of the form, Frayn brilliantly plays the same act three times, each supposedly in a different town and each from a different perspective. As the actors fall in and out with each other from the pressures of life on the road, the play becomes a farce about a farce. Few of the characters survive the middle act without their trousers pulled over their ankles.

The acting is sometimes overstated – Noises Off is hard-wired to work without any underlining from the actors – and the characterisations could be more clearly defined, but more typically the cast is tireless and funny, and makes it look as if Frayn's surreal vision is entirely logical. As ever, it goes down a storm.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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