Theatre in Film: Noises Off (1992)

Written by Ashleigh Gardner

September 22, 2016

Welcome to Part IV in Performer Stuff’s Theatre in Film series. In this installment, we feature films from 1989 to 1995 that focus on interpersonal relationships within theatre — the love, the complications, and the comedy that inevitably occur when actors, directors, playwrights, and technicians share the same space for extended periods of time. We continue Part IV with the 1992 stage adaptation of Michael Frayn’s theatre farce, Noises Off, based on the 1982 play of the same name.

Noises Off (1992)

Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Starring: Carol Burnett, Michael Caine, Denholm Elliot, Marilu Henner, Christopher Reeve, Nicolette Sheridan, John Ritter, Mark Linn-Baker, and Julie Hagerty

What happens:

Noises Off chronicles the ten-week run of Nothing On, a slapstick, farcical comedy directed by Lloyd Fellowes (Michael Caine). The film’s plot lasts over a period of months in which we see — only the first act — the final dress rehearsal, a matinee one month later, and an evening performance at the end of the show’s ten-week run. Lloyd’s show is an absolute disaster.

During the final dress, the actors don’t know their lines, their blocking, or their entrances. Dotty (Carol Burnett) is unable to take direction (or remember it), Garry (John Ritter) can’t stop stopping the rehearsal to ask questions, and Selsdon (Denholm Elliot) is a drunkard who misses entrances because he’s napping across the street in a doorway.

Coupled with the chaos onstage is the whirlwind of drama backstage which we see in a second performance a month later during a matinee. Dotty has left Garry, her previous love interest, for Frederick (Christopher Reeve). The other actors attempt to carry the show during silent but violent physical confrontations between Dotty, Garry, and Frederick backstage. The challenge? Keeping all three from killing each other while maintaining a smooth performance onstage. During the third performance a month later, the show has fallen apart, with actors completely giving up on their lines, blocking, and dialects in favor of emotionally charged improvisations that betray their offstage dramas. Eventually, Act I draws to a close, but not before the stage is in shambles.

Why it matters:

The title of the film (and the original play), “noises off,” refers to the sounds that are made offstage through speakers, like birds chirping, water flowing in a river, or cars honking outside. It gives the scene ambient noise that is designed to enhance the production rather than distract from the action onstage. The actors in Nothing On, however, provide “extra” and rather unnecessary backstage commotion but one that is ultimately ruinous to the quality of the production. At the dress rehearsal, Lloyd yells at Poppy, “Noises off!” to initiate the ambient sounds for Act I. This process occurs over and over as the actors stop the rehearsal to ask questions and remember lines and blocking. The existence of “noises off” in the dress rehearsal is mirrored during the matinee performance a month later, only Lloyd’s not calling for them — and they aren’t the the noises he wants. They consist mainly of Dotty, Garry, Frederick, and the other actors running around backstage in attempts to either maim each other or prevent a maiming.

Part of the other problem with the actors in Nothing On is that most of them aren’t prepared, professionally or mentally, to improvise when something goes wrong. Though Garry, Dotty, and Belinda (Marilu Henner) are probably the most annoying performers in the show, they understand that with every mistake other actors make, they must do their best to repair the scene. However, Vicki, Frederick, and Selsdon, who are capable of memorizing lines and blocking, aren’t able to adapt to the scene in which they are placed when disaster strikes. Whether the latter group doesn’t know how to improv or they simply refuse, it’s uncertain, but either way, their performances are an example of why every actor should learn to improvise during a stage performance.

Nothing On in Noises Off is the epitome of theatrical catastrophe. It’s relatable not only to actors but also to technicians and directors. Everyone in theatre has been in a show where something didn’t go as planned — a missed quick change, a forgotten prop, a flubbed line, a missed sound cue — but in Nothing On the actors, techs, and director bring misfortune upon themselves. Rather than behaving like professionals and pushing past their own insecurities and differences, the actors allow their woes to manifest in unhealthy and distracting ways. If theatre people can learn anything from this film, it’s that Noises Off is what we get when everyone refuses to work together — and the show must go on.

This film is the first featured in Part IV of “Theatre in Film”. See below for the others in Part IV.


Want to start with Part I? Begin with 42nd Street (1933).
Miss Part II? Check out The Band Wagon (1953).
Need a refresh for Part III? Start with our feature on All That Jazz (1979).

Ashleigh Gardner received her AA in Theatre/Drama/Dramatic Arts from Valencia College and her Bachelors Degree in English Literature and Masters Degree in Literary, Cultural, and Textual Studies from the University of Central Florida. She is a playwright, an actor, and’s Editor. 
Thumbnail image from Noises Off. Copyright © Buena Vista Pictures 1992.