Noises Off has as its first act a pastiche of traditional farce; as its second a contemporary variant on the formula; as its third, an elaborate undermining of it.
The play opens with a touring company dress-rehearsing “Nothing On”, a conventional farce. Mixing mockery and homage, Frayn heaps into this play-within-a play a mêlée of stock characters and situations. Charicatures – cheery char, outraged wife, and squeaky blonde – stampede in and out of doors. Voices rise and trousers fall. There are frenetic undressings, dressing-ups, and dressing-downs. All of this periodically halts as the rehearsing cast fluffs lines and muffs moves. Stepping out of the stereotypes they are playing, they reveal themselves as another set of stereotypes: muzzy old trouper, dimwit ingénue, self-dramatizing show stopper. Just enough emerges from their inter-relationship to suggest that they themselves are wobbling on the brink of the clandestine scamperings of farce.
The second act twists the set around. We witness the start of “Nothing On” again; but this time from behind the scenes as it is performed at a mid-week matinee. The doors of the set open and slam with the familiar lunatic rapidity, but everything is now inverted. With embers of the cast manically at odds, it is backstage that the comedy is really fast and furious.
In the last act, the touring play is on its last legs. The set of “Nothing On” is the familiar framework of doors. But the play’s shape is surreally pushed askew by lack of control. Demonstrating how farce depends on precision, clockwork punctuality of exits and entrances, Frayn carefully lets things become unsynchronized until the play skids into a pile up of disastrous collisions, buckled business, and wrecked lines….
For the show must go on… and on… and ….
Taken from File on Frayn. Compiled by Malcolm Page. London: Methuen, 1994. p. 30 / 31.