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Not... exactly a textbook farce, not exactly a backstager, not even exactly a play, Noises Off is a repeating exploration of everything that can go wrong in live theatre. All at once. With perfect, split-second timing. Written by the author of the John Cleese movie Clockwise. Done right, this work of staggering theatrical genius can make you wet your pants — either from laughing too hard (if you don't have extensive backstage theatrical experience) or from horrified flashbacks (if you do).

The play is in three acts; the first depicts what happens on stage during the dress rehearsal for a Feydeau-style door-slamming sex farce that's opening in mere hours, with a cast that hasn't had the rehearsal time they'd like, one of whom is not all there, one of whom is even less there, one of whom has trouble with blood, another of whom has trouble with finishing sentences, and, of course, with sardines. We see the Show Within a Show proceed, with the occasional pause for corrections, mistakes, errors, rumors, misunderstandings, and of course, sardines.

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The second act shows us backstage at the same play after it's opened and has been running a while, when all of the petty jealousies, rivalries, irritations, and pet peeves have been well stoked and are in full flower. Axes, sardines, and whiskey all make their appearances, and part of the charm at this point is watching the actors attempt to kill each other while still managing to make it out onto the "stage" on cue.

The third act then wraps everything up with another iteration of the first act, as the audience would see it, after the cast has been on the road for far too long.

There's a 1992 film version, directed by Peter Bogdanovich and with an all-star cast including Michael Caine as Lloyd the director, with Carol Burnett, Christopher Reeve, Denholm Elliott, John Ritter, Marilu Henner, and Nicollette Sheridan as the cast of Nothing On, and Julie Hagerty and Marc Linn-Baker as the overworked backstage crew. It adds a wrapper about the show going to Broadway, and is presented as a flashback as Lloyd describes what a nightmare the show has been; it also gives the plot an actual happy ending.

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"Noises Off" Has Examples of the Following Tropes:

  • The Alcoholic: Selsdon.
  • All There in the Manual: The program gives bios for the cast of Nothing On, which describe (among other things):
    • How Dotty and Roger got together (in "On The Zebras", where she played a lollipop lady and he played an ice-cream man who charmed all the lollipop ladies)
    • That Brooke pretty much exclusively plays Ms. Fanservice, generally Fanservice Extras.
    • Freddie, ironically for someone Afraid of Blood, works mostly in medical shows.
    • The play's author, Robin Housemonger, has written sixteen plays before this, and they all seem to be the same sort of British Sex Comedy.
  • Ass Shove: Lloyd is on the receiving end of this by Garry. By a cactus.
  • Astonishingly Appropriate Interruption: At one point, a character quietly moving about backstage inadvertently shouts "OH MY GOD!"... precisely on cue — because they've performed the role so many times they reflexively say the line..
  • Bad "Bad Acting": Varying degrees of this are on display out on the stage.
  • Cactus Cushion: Lloyd sits on one at the end of Act II.
  • Casting Couch: Lloyd jokes about this with Poppy in Act I, to her surprise, given that the two of them are (or at least were) in a relationship.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The two extra burglar suits come into play in one of the last gags of the play.
  • Deadpan Snarker: The director has seen it all, and is not happy about having done so.
  • Exhausted Eyebags: Dallas verbally abuses and horribly and appallingly works stage manager Timothy Allgood to the point of a complete and total collapse, endangering his health, all to whip the mess of a production of "Nothing On" into a coherent presentation. Poor Timothy ... he hasn't slept in nearly two days, yet is shouted at and belittled to the point of dehumanization when he is told to repair props that won't work and that he had better be ready to understudy several actors in an instant.
  • Fanservice: Brooke's costume, or lack thereof; see Lingerie Scene.
  • Farce: In fact, it's a farce about a theatre troupe performing a farce.
  • Flowers of Romance: Lloyd attempts this with Brooke, but they keep getting intercepted. He ends up giving her a cactus.
  • From Bad to Worse: Every production of the Show Within a Show ends up getting more and more chaotic, until eventually most of the actors are making things up as they go along.
  • Glad I Thought of It: Selsden, several times after Lloyd gives him direction. Downplayed because Selsden is hard of hearing, and misheard what Lloyd said, but instead suggests exactly what Lloyd told him to do.
  • Hilarity Ensues: The entire point of Noises Off is to depict what might result when everything that could go wrong does: A director who is in over his head, actors who are clearly incompetent or ill-suited to being cast in a major theatrical production and a stage manager who desperately needs sleep. In the real world, given that the play is clearly nowhere close to being ready to present to the audience, a competent director would postpone opening night. If any play actually did open with everything as ill-ready as it was, the play might not make it past opening night … maybe not even through opening night. Additionally, the director (Lloyd Dallas, whose abilities as a director leave much to be desired despite him fancying himself as the greatest) would likely be blacklisted and might also face legal trouble for his overworking of stage manager Timothy Allgood, particularly if he were to suffer health issues due to being denied the chance to sleep.
  • Honorable Marriage Proposal: Implied at the end of the film, with Lloyd and Poppy showing off matching wedding rings.
  • Intimate Healing: Lloyd's plan at the beginning of Act II. Brooke is suffering from "nervous exhaustion", so he's showing up to spend the time between the matinee and the evening show with her, a bottle of whiskey, and a bouquet of flowers. It goes about as well as any other plan in this play.
  • Kayfabe: All productions will have the theater program be about "Nothing On", not "Noises Off".
  • Lingerie Scene: Brooke spends the vast majority of the play in her underwear. Her character Vicki disrobes to bra, panties and garter early in the first act of "Nothing On" and stays that way through the act (except when she covers up with a sheet). Since we only ever see the first act, the only time she is NOT in her skivvies is waiting backstage before the show in Act 2 or when she and Garry enter in the very first scene.
  • Love Triangle:
    • There's a prominent love triangle between Lloyd, Poppy, and Brooke.
    • The second act sets one up between Garry, Dotty, and Freddie. By the third act, this has progressed to Dotty, Freddie, and Belinda.
  • May–December Romance: Garry and Dotty. Lloyd points this out in his usual manner.
    Garry: So what are we waiting for?
    Lloyd: I don't know what you're waiting for, Garry, her sixteenth birthday?
  • Meaningful Name: Garry Lejeune is pretty jejune Definition  which then becomes a subversion when he gets violently jealous, and Dotty is... dotty.
  • Mistaken Message: Lloyd tries to send flowers to Brooke (via Tim), but they keep getting intercepted, mostly by Poppy.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Brooke spends much of her screen/stage time walking around in little more than bra, panties and garter. The notes about her in the program indicate that this is a very common sort of role for her.
  • Nice Guy: Freddie is polite, professional, and friendly with the rest of the cast, and helps cheer Dotty up after her breakup with Garry. He's also totally oblivious to the chaos his good intentions cause, which leads to Garry attempting to kill him with a fire axe and causes an enormous feud between Dotty and Belinda.
  • No Ending: In the play, jarringly so. Michael Frayn couldn't seem to find an ending, so the play simply... stops.
  • Only Sane Man: Belinda and Freddie. By act three, only Freddie.
  • Painting the Medium: During the first scene, they establish that the characters are performing a play by having both Lloyd and Selsdon be placed within the audience in the first scene - Lloyd because he is watching the rehearsal from the audience's perspective (as most directors do), and Selsdon because he is implied to be loafing around within the In-Universe empty theatre.
  • Pet the Dog:
    • Freddie drives Lloyd crazy repeatedly asking why his character is lugging around a box of groceries. Upon hearing that Freddie's wife has just left him, Lloyd spontaneously comes up with a reason that speaks to both Freddie's professionalism and his personal life.
    • In the film, at the end of the first Broadway performance, the cast drag Tim, Poppy, and Lloyd on-stage for bows.
  • Precision F-Strike: Lloyd reacts badly to the constantly changing start times.
    Lloyd: What the FUCK is going on?!
    • Another one (possibly the first one in the play?) is when one of the actors in the Show Within a Show talks to the director:
    Garry: I've worked with a lot of directors, Lloyd. Some of them were geniuses, some of them were bastards, but I've never met one who was so totally and absolutely... I don't know.
    Lloyd: Thank you, Garry, I'm very touched, now get off the fucking stage.
  • Proscenium Reveal: The play opens with a housekeeper walking on stage and nattering into the phone. Then as she's walking off, she says, "I take the sardines... I leave the sardines..." and an off-stage director's voice says, "You take the sardines, and you leave the newspaper." This reveals that what you're actually watching is a rehearsal of a Play Within a Play.
  • The Rashomon: Well, not really. But it is three distinct takes on the same story — it's just three different run-throughs of the same act, not three different people telling different versions.
  • Realistic Diction Is Unrealistic: Garry does fine when reciting lines, but whenever he's off script he doesn't start a single thought without forgetting how it... you know?
  • Right Behind Me: Poppy is discussing Selsden's distinctive...aroma...without realizing he's right behind her. Fortunately, his being hard of hearing and a Cloudcuckoolander combine to make him not realize he's being insulted.
    Poppy: No, I mean, if you stand anywhere near Selsdon you can’t help noticing this very distinctive... (She stops, sniffing.)
    Selsden: (putting his arm round her) I’ll tell you something, Poppy. Once you’ve got it in your nostrils you never forget it. Sixty years now and the smell of the theatre still haunts me.
  • Rule of Threes: Lampshaded by Dotty when Tim, Selsdon, and Lloyd enter as the Burglar in act 3.
    "They always come in threes, don't they?"
  • Running Gag: Given that they do the same Act three different ways, most of the jokes tied to the "Nothing On" become running gags
    • Sardines. Sardines come on. Sardines come off. It's all about the sardines, love.
    • Lloyd speaking biblically "And God said where the hell is Tim? And there the hell was Tim."
      Lloyd: I'm starting to know what God felt like when he sat out there in the darkness, creating the world.
      Belinda: And what did he feel like, Lloyd my dear?
      Lloyd: Very pleased he'd taken his Valium.
    • Door gags.
    • Brooke losing her contact lenses.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: "A Glimpse of the Noumenal", from the program, is a long-winded dissection of the cultural importance of bedroom farce.
    "Another recurring feature is the fall or loss of trousers. This can be readily recognised as an allusion to the Fall of Man and the loss of primal innocence. The removal of the trousers traditionally reveals a pair of striped underpants, in which we recognise both the stripes of the tiger, the feral beast that lurks in all of us beneath the civilised exterior suggested by the lost trousers, and perhaps also a premonitory representation of the stripes caused by the whipping which was formerly the traditional punishment for fornication."
  • Seven Minute Lull: Just as Poppy shouts at the end of Act II.
  • Sex Comedy: "Nothing On" is a British sex farce. Noises Off, therefore, bears more than a bit of resemblance to one.
  • The Show Must Go On: The whole play is an illustration of this trope. The theatrical version, however, implies that the show is an utter failure in the end.
  • Show Within a Show: Nothing On. Noises Off does its best to pass Nothing On off as a real play, as the program will be for Nothing On, with the cast, director, and the author having biographies in the theater program — and as many references to sardines as possible. There is a pseudo-intellectual letter from the director about the symbolism of the sex farce. There are even fake ads in the program, including restaurants bragging about — of course — their sardines. The actual script tries to pass Nothing On as legitimate as well, with the Index page reading, "Act 1", "Act 1", and "Act 1". The script after that page does mention the proper Act numbers, though.
  • Special Effect Failure: Invoked for laughs — Since one aspect of the play is how this can happen in live theatre performances, the script calls for a few parts of the play to mess up - most notably doors.
  • Staircase Tumble: Two different characters do this in the third act, rather badly injuring themselves, but The Show Must Go On!
  • Suddenly SHOUTING!: Combined with a Seven Minute Lull at the end of Act II, when Poppy shouts, "I'M PREGNANT!"
  • Trash the Set: Invoked in the final scene, the actors (who have been touring for too long) are intentionally acting reckless with the set, resulting in them accidentally breaking parts of it. Truth in Television - it's not uncommon (Especially in performances of this play) for actors to accidentally do things such as breaking the railings on the stairs when they fall down the stairs or actually breaking the doors or the props.
  • Truth in Television: As anyone who has theatrical experience can tell you, this play is dead on with what sorts of things go wrong with a play. Allegedly, the author was watching a play they wrote from backstage, and thought what was going on backstage was more interesting than the play.
  • Your Makeup Is Running: At least one version has Belinda's character experience this after she suspects her husband of cheating on her with Vicki. If you look closely during a backstage scene from Act 2, you can actually see Belinda apply extra mascara in preparation for this scene.

The Show Within a Show "Nothing On" Has Examples of the Following Tropes:

  • Acting for Two: Invoked: Freddie plays both Philip and a Sheikh. Freddie lampshades it by asking about the Contrived Coincidence.
  • Arab Oil Sheikh: Freddie's second role, who wants to rent the house.
  • Blatant Lies: Roger lies to Vicki that he owns the house, when he's really just the agent. Philip and Flavia tell Mrs. Clackett to lie and claim they weren't home.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Part of the farce.
    • Philip and the Sheikh look exactly alike for no reason given in the play.
    • Roger decides to use the house for an assignation on the same day that Mrs. Clackett decides to stay late to watch "the royal", the day that Philip and Flavia come back for their anniversary, and the day that the burglar decides to rob the place.
    • Vicki (who doesn't realize whose house it is) works for the tax agency looking into the Brents' tax evasion.
  • Fanservice: Vicki's costume; see Lingerie Scene.
  • Farce: It's a British sex farce.
  • I Was Never Here: The Brents certainly aren't in the country, because Inland Revenue would be upset. Just ask them.
    Philip: Don't tell me, I'm not here.
  • Intimidating Revenue Service: The Brents are certainly terrified by Inland Revenue, and living abroad in an attempt to avoid paying their taxes. Vicki works for Inland Revenue, in the office that's looking into the Brents' taxes.
  • Lingerie Scene: Vicki strips down to her underwear fairly early in Act I, and spends the rest of the act like that.
  • Long-Lost Relative: Vicki is the burglar's daughter, who ran away years ago.
  • My New Gift Is Lame: Flavia finds Vicki's dress and describes it as "tarty", then realizes it must have been a gift from Philip.
    Flavia: Well, I’ll put it in the attic, with all the other things you gave me that are too precious to wear.
    (She goes to the attic and throws it out the window.)
  • Rule of Threes
    • Roger: "We'll only just manage to fit it in. I mean, we'll only just do it. I mean, we won't bother to chill the champagne."
    • Roger: "I just came to go into a few things. *SLAM* Well, to check some of the measurements. *SLAM* Do one or two odd jobs."
  • Running Gag: Sardines.
  • Satchel Switcheroo: Vicki's box of files and Roger's flight bag look exactly like Philip's box of groceries and Flavia's flight bag.
  • Sex Comedy: It's a British sex farce.
  • Sticky Situation: Philip tries to glue the envelope from Inland Revenue closed again, and ends up stuck to the tax demand and a plate of sardines.
  • Tied Up on the Phone: An insanely long phone cord used for slapstick purposes is one of the few bits which actually goes as planned.
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