A growing crescendo of chuckles ending in uproarious laughter shows the timeless nature of well-crafted comedy 

Last night’s audience ranged from those who may well have seen the show when first brought to the stage, in 1982, and those born barely into this millennium. By the end of the night, all were united in laughter, as the play came to its frantic conclusion and the cast could breathe again. 

Great British Life: Sticking to her lines, whatever chaos befalls...Sticking to her lines, whatever chaos befalls... (Image: Pamela Raith)

Noises Off is a classic British farce – much running about, one cast member entering as another leaves, doors banging, at least one woman in her underwear, at least one pair of trousers dropped, and a sense of total and utter confusion and chaos. To write a play with so much going on and to act in a play where timing is everything, where each word, step, entrance and exit must happen precisely when your fellow cast members expect it to, is perhaps one of theatre’s greatest challenges. And this play does the double – it's a play about a play, starting in rehearsals before the production goes on tour. Even before the play opens the cracks are showing, and, as Dotty Ottley says: “Wait till we’ve got to Stockton-on-Tees in twelve weeks' time.” 

The humour comes at us on so many levels it’s hard to keep up. The play in production, Nothing On, is itself a farce. In rehearsal some actors have nailed their parts, others not so much. The increasing frustration of the director combines with actorly errors, the comedy of the play itself and from the moments when the actors step out of their characters and become themselves. It could all be marvellously confusing – Liza Goddard plays Dotty Ottley who plays Mrs. Clackett – but the skill of the cast as they switch between roles keeps us on track. 

Great British Life: Act three...Act three... (Image: Pamela Raith)

It’s a great and highly experienced cast, too, with Liza Goddard, Simon Shepherd, Lucy Robinson and the marvellous Matthew Kelly, among other heavyweights of the stage. While all are truly excellent, Matthew Kelly is glorious. Playing Selsdon Mowray, who has the role of the burglar in Nothing On, he just owns the stage in every scene. His character Selsdon is rather drawn to the drink, rather deaf and really, terribly, lovely.  His fellow cast members panic whenever he’s out of sight, fearful of having to call in the understudy at any moment, and there’s a marvellous scene in act two where the whole cast plays pass the whisky bottle in a vain attempt to keep it from Selsdon’s hands. 

Great British Life: Matthew Kelly, as Selsdon Mowray, as the burglarMatthew Kelly, as Selsdon Mowray, as the burglar (Image: Pamela Raith)

The play is performed in three acts, which caused a little confusion among the audience, many of whom thought the play was over (if a little unexpectedly) when the curtain dropped after act two. The theatre’s ushers were kept busy returning people to their seats, although, one assured me as she herded a slightly puzzled couple down the aisle, they’ve got the set change to three minutes now from a starting point of nine. 

Act One builds the story, and is set on the stage as it is set for Nothing On. We see the play as it should work (pretty much) and admire a proper British farce in action. Act Two takes place during the production of the play in Stockton-on-Tees, and Dotty Ottley’s prophecy has come true. The set now shows us the action behind the scenes, as the cast hurtle in and out of doors and up and down stairs, all while waging private, mostly silent (with some excellent sign language) war with one another. While poor Belinda Blair tries to hold it all together, every other cast member is gradually losing the plot, with hilarious consequences. The final act brings us back to the production of Nothing On from the perspective of the Stockton-on-Tees audience, who don’t know what we know, and are simply faced with an increasingly chaotic production, which is increasingly funny to the Lowry audience.  

Noises Off is a brilliant example of the cleverest of writing and the most controlled of acting, and is a joy to behold. 

Noises Off plays at The Lowry until Saturday 21 October