As the play, ‘Nothing on’ stumbles rapidly towards its, Broadway opening, actors and characters, text and subtext, drama backstage and comedy onstage become indistinguishable. Will it be a massive success or colossal failure? The stakes get higher, the actors sink lower and the Director has a nervous break down as hilarity ultimately ensues and ‘Nothing on’ becomes ‘Noises off’.
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The action sets off in NY as the play, ‘Nothing On’ is about to premiere. The director, Lloyd Fellows, played by the brilliant Michael Caine, can’t bear to watch and races frantically out of the theatre lobby. His voiceover sends us back to the night before opening night in Des Moines where the final tech/dress does not go overly well. It is a play within a play, as the actors own agendas interfere with the rehearsal. Carol Burnett is Dotty Ottley, an aging comic actress who has put her life savings into this run. She is having an affair with much younger co-star, Garry Lejeune (John Ritter), who just happens to have a strong jealous streak. This affair is blabbed to fellow cast members by the gossip of the group, Belinda Blair (Marilu Henner) who also accidentally unveils fellow actor Frederick Dallas’ (Christopher Reeve) impending divorce, and Lloyds own two timing affairs with stage manager Poppy Taylor (Julie Hagerty) and fresh out of drama school ingÈnue Brooke Ashton (Nicollette Sheridan). The deaf, bumbling alcoholic Selsdon Mowbray (Denholm Elliott) keeps getting lost when he needs to be onstage and comes onstage before his cues, and lone backstage crew member Tim (Mark Linn-Baker), nearly collapses from exhaustion as he frantically tries to cater to everybody else’s every command.
The tumultuous relationship between Dotty and Garry, marred by a clueless nosebleed fraught Freddy, defines the central conflict of ‘Noises off’. In the world of ‘Nothing On’, Dotty plays the housekeeper for a couple who is living in Spain in a bid not to pay tax. All the action occurs in their home, a two-story house in the country. The couple, played by Belinda and Freddy, return to their home in secret while Garry’s character, one of the letting agents, is using this supposedly vacant home to conduct an affair with Brooke’s character. Dotty’s character should be on her day off but has chosen to stay in the house to watch TV, and Selsdon plays a burglar who catches them all out.
This is a slapstick comedy written for the London stage. The first act is the dress rehearsal. The second act is a performance a few weeks later shown entirely from backstage, written nearly all as stage directions without a single word of dialogue other than what is overheard from the action on stage, and the third act is a performance quite a few months later shown just from the front. The progression of the play, ‘Nothing On’, deteriorates from act to act as the backstage drama largely takes over. Shoelaces are tied between props, plates of sardines go everywhere, violence rears its ugly head, and Brooke spends most of the time in her underwear. All the while, the desperate Poppy and Tim try and keep it together almost in spite of Lloyd’s help and the play descends into catastrophe and chaos.
Surprisingly, the film takes the extra step of creating a successful final moment where the Broadway audience loves it and the onstage tableau of ‘Nothing on’ depicts a new and happy set of endings for the ‘Noises off’ audience. This, along with some other elements of the film that have been created purely for the cinema, do feel a bit forced. Another example of this is the accent choice—or lack of it. There are onstage attempts at humorous British accents, which I think are meant to help define what is part of ‘Nothing on’ verses what is not. At first this works and the accents come and go at precise moments. However, as the action descends into chaos, the accents go away completely. They don’t add much to any element of the film and seem almost gratuitous.
Anyone who has ever done any theatre, even if that is just being in a school play, knows that things don’t always go smoothly. Even with its faults, this film has managed to capture the ultimate directors nightmare, and make us love it. I dare anyone to watch Noises off and not burst into laughter throughout the film. It is not the most brilliant piece of cinematic legend in the world, but it is a highly entertaining comedy which promises to put a smile on your face and which I would recommend to anyone who just wants to laugh.