Two weeks ago, playwright Michael Frayn was given a special Olivier award for a body of dramatic work which over the last forty years has quietly become an essential part of Britain's artistic fabric. This week, a touring production of his 1982 farce par excellence, Noises Off, that originated at the Old Vic, is playing in Aberdeen prior to dates in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Frayn himself has been on the literary festival circuit, giving readings to coincide with the publication of his most recent novel, Skios.
All of these events in different ways go some way to illustrating Frayn's relationship with public life, be it at an awards ceremony in a room full of high-class thespians, entertaining literary groupies, or, in Noises Off, lampooning the world he is both part of and outside with an astonishing theatrical skill which has made it one of the most popular plays in the world.
Noises Off is set in the the world of low-rent touring theatre in which a badly penned farce is being performed by a cast of trouser-dropping ex TV stars on the way down and scantily-clad wannabe starlets believing they're very much on the way up. The trick here is that while the first act focuses on the play's shambolic dress rehearsal, the second is set a month later, with the same act being performed, only viewed from the increasingly calamitous backstage area, where tensions between the company are running high. The final act sees the same act performed yet again, only towards the end of the tour, with all the accrued fall-outs and disasters riotously in evidence in a hilarious case of life imitating art imitating life.
With this tour featuring former star of Drop the Dead Donkey Neal Pearson alongside a cast that includes Scotland's Maureen Beattie, there should be slickness guaranteed. Even after thirty years, however, while he's happy to leave the cast and director Lindsay Posner to their own devices, Frayn still gives a pep talk on the first day of rehearsals.
“I always give a speech about health and safety,” he says, “because lots of actors hurt themselves doing this play, and in a way the play is quite unfair on actors, because it's such a grotesque portrayal of them. In actual fact, actors are all about collaboration and helping each other out. I know that's not what a lot of people think of them, but in general I really think actors are fantastically creative people.”
The roots of Noises Off date back to Frayn's first ever professional work in 1970, when four one-act plays for two actors were performed by Lynn Redgrave and Richard Briers under the umbrella title of The Two of Us.
“One of the plays was a farce,” he recalls, “and because farce is all about finding people in compromising positions, you need more than two characters in it. Lynn and Richard played five characters between them, and one night I was watching from backstage, and became fascinated watching them come offstage for all these quick changes. That was when I thought it would be interesting to do a farce from behind.”
An early oner-act version, Exits, was performed in 1977, but it was another five years before the full-length Noises Off went into production. Since then, Frayn has tweaked the script several times, although he remains cautious about overplaying his hand.
“Whenever you make a change in one section, it changes something in all the others,” he says. “It's like trying to make a statue out of jelly.”
Nowhere was this more evident than during rehearsals for the play's very first production at the Lyric, Hammersmith, when director Michael Blakemore told Frayn he'd do the best he could, but he didn't know if it would work.
“Every day at rehearsals his face got greyer and greyer,” Frayn remembers.
The first night went well, and on the second the cast realised they had a hit on their hands when when the curtain was held because the queue for tickets was so large. Blakemore's production ran with five successive casts, and the play went on to win a Tony award on Broadway.
“When it was first done, people said it would be alright to do it in England, because we're used to English sex farce,” says Frayn, “but nowhere else has that , so we wouldn't be able to tour it anywhere else. I think now it's been done all over the world.”
How these productions have fared won't have been helped by recent discoveries found in the play's published text.
“When Lindsay Posner started working on it, we realised there were a few mistakes in the published text,” Frayn says. “At one point it says that somebody exits to the bedroom, and then when they come back on it says they enter from the bathroom. What directors working on the play around the world made of that I don't know.”
In 1992, Noises Off was made into a film by veteran Hollywood director Peter Bogdanovitch. While the likes of Michael Caine, Denholm Elliot and Marilu Henner made a decent fist of things, and while Frayn clearly retains a fondness for it, it never quite captured the brio of the stage version.
“I think they made a good job of it,” Frayn says, “but it's an inherently theatrical piece, and you have to feel some sense of that danger that exists with farce, where you feel things might ho wrong. On film, you know nothing can ho wrong, so that slightly takes the edge of things.”
Of his other recent activities, Frayn sounds wonderfully amused by the experiences. Concerning his book festival tour, he notes that “There are an astonishing number of these events. How can the country possibly support so many literary festivals? They seem to be the only part of the economy that does well.”
As for his Olivier award, “If you can manage to stay alive, then you're going to get one eventually,” Frayn dryly notes.
One thing that has stood out with Frayn's work is how different it all is. From Noise Off, he went into writing a series of translations of Chekhov's plays. Arguably Frayn's other best known play is 1998's Copenhagen, which imagined what might have happened at a meeting in 1941 between physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, and the ramifications on the Second World War in terms of the atomic bomb. Yet, despite their differences, all three deal with wildly complex plot structures to make their point.
“The only advice I can give to a younger writer is to keep on repeating themselves,” the seventy-nine year old says with more than a hint of mischief. “Change the name, and make it slightly different, but basically you should keep writing the same thing. Why shouldn't audiences want something predictable? It's like cornflakes. If you but a box of cornflakes, it's because you like cornflakes, and because you don't want anything different. It's much easier to do that.
“Unfortunately,” he says, “I've never been able to do that. The only way I can write things is to wait for an idea to form and then write it down, and it seems that all my ideas come out different.”
Noises Off, His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen until Saturday; Kings Theatre, Glasgow, May 27-June1; Kings Theatre, Edinburgh, June 4-8.
Michael Frayn – A Literary Life
1962-67 - Michael Frayn spent his early adulthood working as a reporter on the Guardian and the Observer. The best of his articles were reprinted in four volumes, beginning with The Day of the Dog in 1962.
1965 – Frayn's first novel, the Tin Men, wins the Somerset Maugham Award.
1970 – The Two of Us, four plays for two actors, announces Frayn's arrival as a dramatist.
1977 – Two plays, Alphabetical Orders and Donkey Years, both win best comedy awards.
1982 – Noises Off premieres.
1983 – Frayn translates Three Sisters, the first of several Chekhov translations.
1998 – Copenhagen, which imagines a real life meeting between physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in 1941 wins four best play awards.
2003 – Democracy, a play based on the real life events concerning West German chancellor Willy Brandt's decision to expose his secretary, Gunter Guillaume, as a Communist spy, opens.
2008 – Frayn's most recent play, Afterlife, about Austrian theatre director Max Reinhardt, premieres at the National Theatre. In the same year as his twenty-ninth play appears, , a book of Frayn's writings on theatre and introductions to his plays, Stage Directions, is published.
The Herald, May 9th 2013