It seems rather apt that David Thacker’s last act as artistic director of the Octagon Theatre in Bolton should be to stage this great exploration of the joys, dramas and absurdities of theatre. If nothing else, Michael Frayn’s comic masterpiece lays bare the potential of theatre to enthral, amuse and entertain, and Thacker has certainly achieved that in his six years in charge.
Noises Off is Frayn’s love letter and gift to theatre, then, from the recognisably exasperated director (played with vexed annoyance by Rob Edwards) in Act I desperately trying to fine tune the dress rehearsal, to the bumbling drunk forgetting his lines (the hugely likeable Kenneth Alan Taylor) and the hideously OTT, am-dram affectations of Belinda (Barbara Drennan) and Brooke (Paula Jennings). The way the latter two in particular delineate between their overly deliberate ‘acting’ and their ‘real life’ characters is hugely impressive.
Noises Off’s second act, where the farcical action takes place ‘backstage’ as the cast and play begin to disintegrate, is rightly famous. Designer Ruari Murchison has performed miracles in making the set work at all in such a small space but it’s telling that the roars of laughter as the increasingly slapstick routines become all the more ridiculous come from the middle of the auditorium: in the wings it becomes difficult to make out the action.
Is there much of the character depth that makes some of the very best versions of Noises Off stand out? Not really. But Thacker understands that primarily these are ciphers to laugh with and at, particularly when James Dutton’s lovelorn Garry turns into a hopping mad Basil Fawlty. Still one of the great farces of our times.