About ten years ago I went to see Michael Frayn’s Noises Off in the West End. The play has been revived, and rewritten, many times since its first run in 1982 and its place in the farcical canon is undisputed. One consequence of its (entirely deserved) reputation for being hilarious is that audiences strongly expect it to make them laugh. More than that: they know it will make them laugh. The curtain at the Piccadilly Theatre went up to reveal ‘an open-plan living area, with a staircase leading to a gallery. A notable feature is the extensive range of entrances and exits provided … All in all, a superb example of the English set-builder’s craft – a place where the discerning theatregoer will feel instantly at home.’ (There’s a long comical description of it in the script.) An anticipatory chuckle rippled through the audience of discerning theatregoers. A telephone rang. Enter Mrs Clackett, ‘a housekeeper of character … carrying an imposing plate of sardines’, who answered the phone in a ponderous and unconvincing stage cockney: ‘Hello … Yes, but there’s no one here, love … No, Mr Brent’s not here … He lives here, yes, but he don’t live here now because he lives in Spain.’ Appreciative guffaws. She delivered the punchline: ‘They’re all in Spain!’ Huge roar of laughter. Which was odd, because so far the play hadn’t been at all funny – as, it soon transpired, it wasn’t meant to be.
LRB 24 May 2012 | PDF Download