Literary Criticism and Significance
Noises Off is a farce-within-a–farce and much of the praise its productions have received has been focused on the cleverness in Michael Frayn’s script. Specifically, Frayn was commended for setting up the action of Nothing On in Act One so that the audience can recognize the mishaps in the performances in Acts Two and Three. Furthermore, many noted how he sent up the traditions and devices of middlebrow sex farces that were popular in the 1960s and 1970s. Nothing On takes place on a two-level multi-door set that is intrinsic to the genre, which Frayn utilizes for both the actors and the characters they portray. On top of this, critics noted that Frayn’s multilayered structure gave new life to ages-old farcical set pieces such as pratfalls and door-slamming.
Frayn also pokes fun at regional touring productions and their tendency to attract has-beens and never-weres. In published editions of the script, Frayn includes mock program information for the cast and crew of Nothing On. Since many productions include this fake program in the real one, the audience gets additional laughs at the expense of the ridiculous careers of Frayn’s characters. Tellingly, some of the cast and crew’s past credits overlap, showing their limited claims to fame. Frayn supports this with references to past work in the script.
As with most farces, critics also noted the difficulty in sustaining the play’s momentum. Many found the weakest point of the play to be Act Two, which could potentially exhaust the audience’s appreciation for physical humor. Some suggested a short version of the act would have been more effective. The other part of the script some critics found weak was the ending. Instead of ending the play with a large-scale disaster, Frayn instead has the action sputter.
Despite both praise and constructive criticism, Noises Off has been an incredibly popular play with audiences. It began as a one-act whose initial success led Frayn to expand it into a full-length play. The play has received two major Broadway productions and numerous regional ones in the United States, United Kingdom, and numerous other countries in Europe and Asia. In response to its popularity, Frayn has continued to rewrite the play in the thirty years since he first wrote it. A film version directed by Peter Bogdanovich was released in 1992, and featured Michael Caine, Carol Burnett, Christopher Reeve, Denholm Elliot, and John Ritter, among others.