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.
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.
This Play Has Examples of the Following Tropes:
- Acting for Two: In-universe example: Freddie plays both Philip and a Sheikh. He interrupts a dress rehearsal to question the Contrived Coincidence of both characters looking exactly the same.
- The Alcoholic: Selsdon.
- 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..
- 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/Vicki's costume, or lack thereof.
- Farce: In fact, it's a farce about a theatre troupe performing a farce.
- 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.
- 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.
- Lingerie Scene: Brooke/Vicki, and not just a scene, the whole play. Vicki disrobes to bra, panties and garter early in the first act of "Nothing On" and stays that way through the act. 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 Gary 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.
- MayDecember 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 eighteenth birthday?
- Lloyd, Brooke, and Poppy comprise a May-December Love Triangle.
- Meaningful Name: Garry Lejeune is pretty jejune Definition which then becomes a subversion when he gets violently jealous, and Dotty is... dotty.
- Ms. Fanservice: Brooke/Vicki spends much of her screen/stage time walking around in little more than bra, panties and garter.
- 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.
- Precision F-Strike: Lloyd reacts badly to the constantly changing start times.Lloyd: What the FUCK is going on?!
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."
- 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:
- 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 runthroughs of the same act, not three different people telling different versions.
- 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."
- Also 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.