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Meet the team behind the ‘Rubik’s cube’ set for classic farce Noises Off

Seamus Benson and Max Jones on the set of Noises Off Seamus Benson and Max Jones on the set of Noises Off
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As the Lyric Hammersmith brings back the classic farce, Nick Smurthwaite speaks to designer Max Jones and production manager Seamus Benson about the technical challenges of pulling off a rather complicated failure

Back where it started out, Noises Off – the ultimate backstage comedy – has returned to the Lyric Hammersmith, after 37 years.

The original 1982 production, which starred Paul Eddington and Patricia Routledge, under the direction of Michael Blakemore, transferred from Hammersmith to the West End where it ran for three years. The Guardian’s Michael Billington called it “pulverisingly funny”.

Even though the playwright Michael Frayn has revised it several times since its original production, Noises Off is not really open to creative reinterpretation. It is a well-oiled machine of a play, tuned to perfection by a master craftsman.

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Designer Max Jones says: “The design requirements are embedded into Frayn’s script. It’s all about finding technical solutions. It is a technical challenge across all the disciplines, which is quite unusual.”

In other words, the play’s physical and spatial requirements take precedence. Michael Blakemore, the original director, said he had to have a lie down after he first read it, realising the work, energy and precision the staging would demand.

Billington wrote: “In one sense it panders to our sadistic delight in seeing things that go wrong, and in another it is a very intelligent joke about the fragility of all forms of drama.”

Normally, Jones tries not to reference previous productions if he is working on a revival, but this was an exception. “I looked at every other version I could find this time because there are so many practical and technical necessities,” he says. “You have to be meticulous about every architectural detail in the set because every component is engaged with in the play.

“It’s a Rubik’s cube of a play, design-wise, with huge mathematical challenges. Luckily I quite enjoy that aspect of design.”

An image from the original production of Noises off at the Lyric Hammersmith. Photo: Donald Cooper

Jones was no doubt helped by the fact that Jeremy Herrin, director of the Lyric revival, was at the helm of a previous revival of Noises Off at New York’s Roundabout Theatre in 2015. They also worked together on Herrin’s acclaimed production of All My Sons, starring Bill Pullman and Sally Field, which finished its run at the Old Vic in June.   

He says: “Jeremy is a great collaborator and having directed the play previously at the Roundabout he was also very well practised in the many staging challenges of something as technically intricate and complex as this.”

For anyone who hasn’t seen it, Noises Off exposes a world of backstage mayhem during the performance of a third-rate British farce, Nothing On. There are three acts but only one interval. In the first, we witness the technical rehearsal of the show, presided over by the long-suffering director. Then in the second act, a month later, we see the company falling apart – philandering, back-stabbing, hamming it up – backstage in Ashton-under-Lyne.

In the third act, we see an on-stage performance in Stockton-on-Tees where both play and company have descended into hysteria, drunkeness and anarchy.

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Among other things, the design and technical teams have to work out how to move seamlessly from the two-storey domestic set of the first act to the equally intricate backstage set of the second act.

Surely the passage of 37 years, with all the technical innovations of the digital age, has made such a transition easier to achieve? “Not really, it’s still quite old-school at the Lyric,” says Jones. “The scene changes will be done in 2019 pretty much as they were in 1982. The transition between Acts II and III is a lot quicker than it was originally, with a 90-second front-of-cloth sequence. But there isn’t enough stage depth at the Lyric to rotate the set as a whole piece, so you have to break it up into component parts.”

This has meant taking on extra hands backstage, one of the myriad duties of production manager Seamus Benson. It requires twice as many people as they would normally have handling the scene changes.

“It is the heaviest scene change we’ve had for quite a while,” says Benson, who has worked at the Lyric for 20 years. “The main challenge is the time factor and assembling the right team to ensure it all happens safely. I’ve worked in the business long enough to know that if you have a good scenic workshop building your scenery, you’ll be okay.”

The set is being built by the reputable Plymouth-based company TR2, which works out of the Theatre Royal Plymouth.

Noises Off on Broadway in 2016. Photo: Joan Marcus

Unusually, for the actors to develop their muscle memory, the Lyric built a replica of the set in the rehearsal room, which Benson says “made my job a million times easier”.

Jones adds: “It was fantastic to walk in on the first day of rehearsal and have the design in three dimensions. Despite its complexity we still had to do everything in a normal four-week rehearsal period, so we would have been struggling to turn it round without the replica set.”

Being a farce, even though it is by the cerebral Frayn, there are physical gags and pratfalls, including a breathtaking moment in which one of the actors falls down a flight of stairs.

“It’s not the kind of thing you can leave to chance,” says Benson. “It needed some serious risk-assessment. We brought in the fight arrangers RC-Annie to facilitate those moves and ensure the safety of the actor in question.”

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One of the greatest strengths of Noises Off is the escalating sense of everything falling apart, or as Billington put it, “the booby-trapped minefield of theatre itself in which one false move, one missed cue, can destroy a carefully created fiction”.

The challenge for Jones, Benson, Herrin and the company is to make that look believable without compromising the durability and safety of the set.

“You have to find the balance between the effect that works in the comedy moment and that being robust enough to be repeated night after night,” says Jones. “You must build longevity into your sets. Audiences experience these effects in a moment, but the actors and the production have to repeat them every night.”

Benson says: “If one prop or piece of furniture is in the wrong place, it can mess up everything that comes after it and not in a good way. Once it starts, Noises Off is a rollercoaster ride.”

Despite its prescriptive nature, Noises Off allows for some design latitude. Though he is only 40, Jones says he grew up with 1970s and 1980s TV sitcoms about dysfunctional marriages, lecherous husbands and drunken executives. He says: “I wanted a clear distinction between Acts I and II, where you enter the real world of backstage goings-on, so it made sense to style Act I in a cruder, 1970s-sitcom world. So the play within the play is quite colourful, even a bit garish, whereas the colours are more muted once we go backstage. It’s very often a matter of clarity of storytelling and establishing the period.”

CV Max Jones

Born: Bristol, 1979
Training: Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, 1998-2001
Landmark productions:
• True West, Glasgow Citizens (2013)

• Little Shop of Horrors, Theatr Clwyd (2015)
• The Crucible, Royal Exchange, Manchester (2015)
• A Streetcar Named Desire, Theatre Cocoon, Tokyo (2019)
• All My Sons, Old Vic, London (2019)

• Winner, Linbury Biennial Prize (2001)

Agent: Davina Shah at MLR

Noises Off runs at the Lyric Hammersmith until July 27. Go to lyric.co.uk/shows/noises-off for more information

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