Noises Off

Noises Off is a 1982 play by 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. A prototype of Noises Off, 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.

Production history

In theatrical stage directions, the term "noises off" specifies sounds that are meant to originate offstage. The play premiered at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, London, in 1982, directed by Michael Blakemore and starring Patricia Routledge, Paul Eddington, and Nicky Henson. (Cleverly 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 End's Savoy Theatre in The Strand, 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 City at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 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.

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 praised the play, wrote that the film is "one of the worst ever made."

Noises Off has become a staple of both professional theatre companies and community theaters on both sides of the Atlantic. On October 5, 2000, the National Theatre 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 Theatre in the West End 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 (such as Mrs. Clackett's to the Brents having colour television) that tend to date the play have been eliminated or rewritten.


In his plot for Noises Off, Frayn plays on the concept of a play within a play, in this case a parodically dreadful sex comedy entitled 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.

Act One is set at the dress rehearsal, the night before opening at the (fictional) Grand Theatre in Weston-super-Mare, 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 later, at the (again fictional) Theatre Royal in Ashton-under-Lyne. 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.

In Act Three, we see a performance near the end of the ten-week run, at the (still fictional) Municipal Theatre in Stockton-on-Tees, 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.


  • Lloyd: The director of the play, Nothing On. Tempermental. One third of a possible Lloyd–Poppy–Brooke love triangle.
  • Dotty: A late-middle-aged actress. Forgetful. Enjoys drinking. One third of a possible Dotty–Gary–Fred love triangle.
  • Garry: 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. One third of a possible Dotty–Gary–Fred love triangle.
  • Fred: An actor with a serious fear of violence and blood. Gets nosebleeds easily. One third of a possible Dotty–Gary–Fred love triangle.
  • Belinda: Cheerful and sensible, a reliable actress. She may have feelings for Fred.
  • Poppy: Stagehand. Emotional and oversensitive, and jealous of Brooke, whom she understudies. One-third of a possible Lloyd-Poppy-Brooke love triangle.
  • Selsdon: 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. Yet, he never misses a line or a cue.
  • Tim: Stagehand. A goof-off, clumsy, and lazy. Understudies Selsdon and Freddy.
  • Brooke: A young inexperienced actress from London. 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. One-third of a possible Lloyd–Poppy–Brooke love triangle.


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