Michael Frayn’s frenetic audience-pleasing farce Noises Off began life as a one-act play with the title Exits first performed in 1977 at Drury Lane. The success of that performance led to the commission for the play to be expanded into a full-length work. This was a process which took considerable time since the way Frayn envisioned this expansion was ambitious for a writer and daunting for a production company. The second act literally turns the tables on the first act so that the manic dress rehearsal by a low-rent acting troupe performing an even lower-rent sex farce as a play within play becomes just voices from the other side of a wall as the audience is now treated to the insanity of what goes on behind the curtain to make sure that play within a play goes off with perfect timing. The third then proceeds to deconstruct all those high hopes with a performance late in the run of the play within the play when egos have been bruised, relationships are in tatters and everybody is just ready for it all to come to an end with hopes for nothing more lofty than keeping at least some of their dignity intact
Due to the sheer logistical difficulties in making this happen, the first performance of the full length rewrite now titled Noises Off would not be mounted until 1982. Although the rewriting process was still not done even after that premiere, the crazy you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it word of mouth (along with some impressive awards) resulted in a five year run in London and the Broadway debut in 1983.
Frayn’s realization that every live performance of a stage play is really two performances at once with the audience only privy to one of them was inspired by watching this hidden drama play out while backstage during an actual performance. Since a farce is the one genre most dependent on precise timing, it only made to sense that his play within a place would be an example and a bad farce is always a better show backstage than a good farce. When the final ingredient being not a high class Broadway-level troup and theater, everything necessary to make sure what can go wrong does go wrong was in place. The only thing missing, of course, is that high class, well-disciplined and highly trained cast and crew capable making tightly controlled anarchy look like pure chaos without actually being so.
Or so goes the theory. On paper it is easy to create the illusion of chaos without actually creating it. The history of producing Noises Off has proved the execution is far less easy. Nearly every actor who has taken part in an extended run of Frayn’s madcap comedy has a story about bruises, near-misses with broken bones and even weight loss from the sheer energy required from a cast that seems to be in a perpetual state of motion. And yet actors continue to line up for a shot at a role because nothing says you are doing your job as an actor in a comedy more than an audience that seems to be a perpetual state of laughter and Noises Off has earned its distinction as one of the most crowd-pleasing comedies to come out of the 20th century.
A misguided attempt to transfer that infection energy from the stage to the screen was directed by perhaps one of the two or three filmmakers in 1992 who might actually have been able to pull it off, Peter Bogdanovich. Certainly, there is a definite relationship between Noises Off and Bogdanovich’s early 70’s neo-screwball comedy What’s Up, Doc!. But where that film takes advantage of multiple locations and the idiosyncratic topography of San Francisco, the severely limited spatial considerations of Noises Off is revealed to be simply too integral to the enjoyment of the precision timing. The key to audience enjoyment of stage productions is that they are not guided to where they should be looking, thus the element of surprise is always present. Film editing takes that responsibility away from the viewer and puts it into the hands of the director and being directed to look in a specific place is by definition an indication that something important will happen there. The thrill of watching a live performance of Noises Off is that element of mystery that comes with not knowing what is possibly going to happen at any given moment at any given point on the stage. Bogdanovich is certainly to be given credit for making a good try, however.