In 1970, British playwright Michael Frayn stood in the wings and watched a performance of a farce he had written for Lynn Redgrave called The Two of Us. Struck by the thought that it was even funnier viewed from behind the scenes than from the stalls, he decided that at some point he would like to write a backstage farce.

Twelve years later, Frayn unleashed his 1982 comedy Noises Off, considered by many to be the funniest play ever written. It’s certainly one of the most intricately plotted and ingeniously constructed farces of all time. “I can’t quite fathom how Michael Frayn has managed to create something quite as brilliant as he has,” says Sam Strong, the Artistic Director of Queensland Theatre, who is currently directing the work as a co-production for QT and Melbourne Theatre Company with a cast that includes Simon Burke, Ray Chong Nee and Libby Munro.

Noises Off, Queensland Theatre, Melbourne Theatre CompanyNoises Off is a co-production between Queensland Theatre and Melbourne Theatre Company

“I’ve seen two productions of it. During the first experience I was thinking how masterful it was and how funny. As I sat there, I admired the genius of the play but also, as a director, I’m hardwired to think ‘what would I do?’ So, having seen a couple of productions, I was inspired to want to direct it. It’s a work that I’ve admired for a long time and I’m delighted to have the chance to have a crack at it,” says Strong.

Noises Off is a shamelessly entertaining, three-act play-within-a-play about a rep company touring the English provinces in a creaky bedroom farce called Nothing On set in a large country house with plenty of doors. In Act One, it’s nearing midnight and the actors are still struggling through a disastrous dress rehearsal. The opening is a matter of hours away, the production is in shocking shape,
and the director is tearing his hair out.

The second act takes place at a matinee a month later when relationships between the cast are deteriorating – the twist being that this time we see the play from backstage. The final act, which is seen from front of house again, takes place at the end of the tour. Hostilities between the actors are spilling onto the stage and everything that could go wrong does.

Frayn has created a rum bunch of eccentric characters. There’s Dotty Otley, a middle-aged actor who used to be a “name”, who is backing the show, playing the housekeeper and having an affair with the temperamental, younger leading man Garry Lejeune. The philandering director Lloyd Dallas is having a fling with both Brooke Ashton, a ditzy bombshell who keeps losing her contact lenses, and the conscientious stage manager Poppy Norton-Taylor.

Then there’s the company gossip Belinda Blair, an elderly dipsomaniac called Selsdon Mowbray, and the morose, nervy Frederick Fellowes who needs to be given acting motivations for every move his character makes.

Sam Strong, Queensland TheatreDirector Sam Strong

“As someone who has a career in theatre, I found it particularly funny. But I think that the genius of the play is that it manages to be equally funny to someone who doesn’t know a great deal about theatre,” says Strong. “What excites me about Noises Off is just the core challenge of making every single component of the production as funny as we possibly can. Whether that’s the accent of a character, where the door opens onstage or offstage, the choice of music or how any given character is playing an individual line, the ability to build this comic masterpiece component part by component part, to make every single bit of it as funny as it can be, that’s a pretty exciting and delicious prospect for the director.”

Of course, the style and tone need to be spot on and, as in any farce, the actors have to play it absolutely for real. “It’s very easy to play it too big or too small,” says Strong. “The crucial thing about Noises Off is that it’s an ensemble comedy par excellence. It’s a play in which the quality of the ensemble performance, and the ensemble working together, is vital to it taking flight. As I was gradually putting [the cast] together, I was conscious of how they might all work together.”

Productions are often set in the 1970s to get extra comic mileage from the costuming but Strong has chosen to set it in the 80s when it was written, and although he and designer Richard Roberts explored taking it out of its English setting, they decided against it. “During the design process for Noises Off, we went genuinely full circle when it cameto exploring how robust or radical we could be with resetting it,” says Strong.

“We worked through many, various versions to return to what I think is the ideal version of it. That Englishness is very important to the rhythm of the comedy, so we are setting it as intended in England, in the period of the original version of the show.”

Noises Off plays at the Playhouse, QPAC from June 3 – 25, then at Arts Centre Melbourne, from July 8 – August 12.