NOISES Off has been making people laugh since it opened in 1982 but it had a tortuous path to the stage.
Playwright Michael Frayn has long enjoyed a good farce but says Noises Off was inspired by a visit backstage during a performance of his own play, The Two of Us, in London’s West End.
“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 it was funnier than anything on stage and I decided I’d like to write a farce viewed from behind the scenes.”
His one-act play, Exits, was presented at a fundraising midnight matinee in 1977. Then he was commissioned by producer Michael Codron to write a full-length version.
It was no easy task. It meant Frayn had to plan the movement of actors and crucial props in and out of a variety of exits and entrances, firstly in rehearsal as viewed from out front and then in performance as seen from backstage.
“It was like trying to make a sculpture out of jelly,” he recalls. “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, 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. As we left the rehearsal room at the end of each day, I could see his reassuring smile draining away to bleak anxiety.”
Despite Frayn’s forebodings, the play was well received at its first preview. It was apparent, though, that some repair work had to be carried out in the last act. “I went on rewriting each day until Nicky Henson, who was playing Gary, was deputed by the rest of the company (rather like Gary in the play) to announce that they would learn no more new versions.”
Frayn pays tribute to the directors of the play’s major UK productions: Michael Blakemore, Jeremy Sams and now Lindsay Posner who may well preside over the definitive version.
But why does Frayn think his account of actors struggling to achieve a theatrical performance has struck a universal chord?
“I think it’s connected to the fear we all have inside ourselves that we might be unable to go on with the performance,” he suggests.
“It’s amazing how many people find public speaking terrifying, even if it’s just in front of family and friends at a wedding. And an audience is an intense version of the world around us. We all feel we might break down – and we sometimes do. So when we see it happening to those idiots on the stage in a farce, it’s a release of the tension.”
If the public delight in the spectacle of actors straining to keep afloat fictional show Nothing On, there are reports that some members of the theatrical profession were less amused by Noises Off’s depiction of actors as dim-witted, emotionally immature and inclined to alcoholic excess.
Frayn pleads guilty but with extenuating circumstances.
“It’s a very unfair picture of actors,” he admits. “In my experience, actors are astonishing people – intelligent, resourceful, mutually supportive and often with wide-ranging interests in things well outside the limits of the theatre.
“The more I work with them, the more I admire them. On the other hand, Noises Off is a farce and the characterisation in a farce has to be a bit two-dimensional.”
The playwright’s conscience has been equally pricked by the dangers to which actors in Noises Off are subjected. He recalls one unfortunate Gary gashing himself so badly that the actress playing Dotty had to manoeuvre herself to hide the resulting pool of blood.
Frayn’s dramatic output is extremely varied, with the gaiety of Noises Off seemingly far distant from the sober preoccupations of Copenhagen.
Yet there is a thematic affinity between these plays and much of Frayn’s work for the stage can be seen as part of his continuing fascination with the way we perceive the world and how we try to make sense of it by applying shape and structure.
Noises Off, with Neil Pearson and Maureen Beattie, is at Newcastle Theatre Royal from tonight until Saturday. Tickets: 0844 811 2121 or www.theatreroyal.co.uk Michael Frayn will be at the Queen’s Hall, Hexham, at 5pm on Saturday talking about his new novel, Skios, as part of the Hexham Book Festival (tickets: 01434 652477).