REVIEW: Theatre Royal Bath/Birmingham Rep in Noises Off, York Theatre Royal ****

Double trouble: Daniel Rainford’s Tim Allgood and Matthew Kelly’s Selsdon Mowbray in Noises Off, on tour at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Pamela Raith

THIS revival of Michael Frayn’s beloved fractious farce arrives in York in the wake of Mischief’s Magic Goes Wrong, The Comedy About A Bank Robbery and, twice, The Play That Goes Wrong.

If you loved the madcap malarky of those Mischief-making feats of furiously fast physical theatre, take a step back in time to savour the abiding joys of Frayn’s 1982 comedy, now an avuncular forerunner that still brings the house -and stage – down in 2023, 23 years after being elected one of 100 best plays of the 20th century in the National Theatre’s Millennial retrospective.

Frayn, Guardian feature writer-turned playwright, has tweaked his script for the 40th anniversary tour, now on its second leg with only Matthew Kelly reprising his role from last year’s travels.

He may be spotted off-stage with a walking stick, nursing an injured knee from his exertions on two new hips, but once the performance starts, he “feels like a gazelle” at 73, his burglar character leaping through a broken window again and again.

Frayn revels in taking the Michael out of the fallibility, frailties, foibles and luvvie excesses of the acting profession – sometimes accused of taking itself too seriously – but been-there, done that actors love it. Felicity Kendal was in last year’s company; now Kelly’s old thespian lush, Selsdon Mowbray, is joined by such touring campaign veterans as Liza Goddard, Simon Coates, Lucy Robinson and Dan Fredenburgh (although Mark Middleton is ably deputising for him all week as the increasingly vexed Garry Lejeune).

Frayn puts the worst traditions of touring theatre to the sword, from flings and fallouts to coarse acting and stage calamities, over three acts of a farcically bad play within his very good one. The “bad” is Nothing On, a very British trouser-dropping farce with jokes cornier than a cob and doors galore – seven in all – but no escape from the hapless, hopeless show or tour contract as it hobbles from fraught, fractured rehearsals to a last night from hell after 12 weeks for its cast of has-beens, never-beens and desperate newcomers.

As a pleasingly full house looks on, we join the cast of Nothing On at a technical rehearsal so behind schedule there will be no dress rehearsal, everyone playing catch-up from the off. Oxbridge-educated director Lloyd Dallas (Simon Shepherd, all in black with a splenetic mood to match) is already dreaming of his next engagement (Shakespeare’s Richard III in Wales).

In the meantime, he has trapped himself between the affections of fallow assistant stage manager Poppy Norton-Taylor (Nikhita Lesler) and his new catch, the eager but dim Brooke Ashton (Lisa Ambalavanar). Watch out for her exaggerated arm movements, a show in themselves,

What could possibly go wrong? Anticlockwise, from top, Matthew Kelly, Lucy Robinson, Dan Fredenburgh, Liza Goddard, Daniel Rainford and Lisa Ambalavanar in Michael Frayn’s Noises Off. Picture: Pamela Raith

The tour-funding veteran trouper, scatty Dotty Otley (Liza Goddard, such lovely comic timing throughout), has already seduced self-appointed leading man Garry Lejeune (Mark Middleton).

Lucy Robinson’s eternally bubbly and unflappable Belinda Blair supplies the backstage gossip and tea and sympathy. Simon Coates’s forgetful, flaky luvvie Frederick Fellowes, Kelly’s old soak Selsdon Mowbray and Daniel Rainford ‘s quietly scene-stealing, overstretched stage manager Tim Allgood are in need of the director’s reassurance, another drink and sleep respectively.

Act One, on Simon Higlett’s typical touring stage, is all sweetness and light and mutual support, save for the barbed tongue of the exasperated director. By Act Two, one month into the tour, relationships are strained, gloves off, and now witnessed backstage, the side you never normally see. 

Picking up the pace, Posner’s cast applies manic energy, humorous physicality and expressive comedy skills to the clashing company’s skirmishes as vendettas and alcohol abuse infect the performance. Silence – necessary backstage – is golden in Frayn’s hands as Nothing On staggers on and Ruth Cooper-Brown’s movement and fight direction comes to the sublime fore.

Then, suddenly, a technical hitch for real, as chance would have it in a play full of them, that required the dinner-jacketed stage manager to make an announcement.

Thankfully, the tabs’ malfunction was not the final curtain, and Act Three could proceed.  War is waged on all fronts on the company’s last night in Stockton-on-Tees, the end of the line in every way as Nothing On – seen from the stage again after a round of applause for the rotating stage manoeuvres – becomes a mere side-show to the vituperative settling of scores.

If you have never seen the comic potential in sardines, plates and plates of them, they are yet another reason to savour Noises Off, amid the glorious shenanigans of actors acting up.

Performances: 7.30pm nightly, plus 2pm Thursday and 2.30pm Saturday matinees. Box office: 01904 623568 or

What a farce as Matthew Kelly plays drunken old actor in Michael Frayn’s classic comedy Noises Off at York Theatre Royal

Matthew Kelly: Defying an injured knee on tour in Noises Off. All pictures: Pamela Raith

MATTHEW Kelly is performing “like a gazelle” in the 40th anniversary tour of Michael Frayn’s riotous farce Noises Off, despite a knee injury.

“I’m already doing it on two new hips, and off stage I have to walk with a stick,” says the erstwhile Stars In Their Eyes presenter, now 73, who takes to the York Theatre Royal stage from tonight.

“I twisted my knee on the set about a year ago on the first tour run. I thought, ‘I’m not going to have any more surgery; I’ll treat it with physiotherapy’, and that’s what I’ve done. It gets me a seat on the Tube every time!

“The knee’s getting better and I’ve kind of got used it, having had to use sticks when I was getting the hips done.”

Matthew takes the role of Selsdon Mowbray, an old actor with a drink problem, “for which I’ve done a lot of research”, he jokes.

“The play’s been going for 42 years, and I was up for the first takeover 40 years ago, when I was invited to follow Nicky Henson in the lead role in the original production.”

Watching Henson’s supreme performance, however, Matthew decided against taking up the invitation. When the chance came to play Selsdon Mowbray, four decades later, this time he jumped at it, new hips and all.

“What makes it work, and the only way it can work, is for the company to be really close, really bonded, and absolutely in tune with each other, which we are,” says Matthew Kelly

On the first itinerary, he played opposite Felicity Kendal; now he is joined by fellow 73-year-old Liza Goddard in Theatre Royal Bath’s touring revival, directed by Lindsay Posner, who staged Richard III and Romeo And Juliet in York’s first season of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre productions in 2018.

Structured as a play within a play over three acts, Frayn’s chaotic comedy follows the on and off-stage antics of a hapless touring theatre company stumbling its way through the fictional farce, Nothing On, from shambolic final rehearsal to a disastrous matinee, seen silently from backstage, before their catastrophic last performance in Stockton-on-Tees.

If you have enjoyed Mischief’s visits to York with The Play That Goes Wrong and Magic Goes Wrong in recent years, they echo Frayn’s forerunner, a comedy rooted in calamities, pratfalls and slapstick as a cast at war with each other strives desperately to keep a performance on track amid the mayhem.

“What makes it work, and the only way it can work, is for the company to be really close, really bonded, and absolutely in tune with each other, which we are,” says Matthew. “If you get one thing wrong, it can throw the whole play out of kilter.

“I always have good times with companies, but this company is an absolute delight to work with. Having to do three matinees a week, it’s absolutely killing us. There’s no-one having an affair as we’re too knackered!”

Michael Frayn has supported the 40th anniversary tour at every opportunity, as well as tweaking the script. “He’s now 90, and he’s been with us since the start, coming to the opening night when I first did the show with Felicity last year, opening at Bath, and then when we went into the West End,” says Matthew.

“He’s told us it’s the best ever production of the play, though he probably always says that. He’s kind and encouraging, and you just know he’s like that with every company.”

Matthew Kelly in his role as drunken old actor Selsdon Mowbray. “I’ve done a lot of research,” he says

The revival of Noises Off is perfectly timed after the pandemic sent theatres into cold storage. “It’s a love letter to theatre that really lifts the spirit. You hear people rolling around with laughter throughout the show,” says Matthew.

This is the reward for the cast’s meticulously timed comedic performances. “We only had three weeks’ rehearsal for the second tour, and I was the only original member of the cast still in the show. So when we opened in Birmingham, we were still rehearsing during the day as well as performing at night.”

In keeping with the play, things can go wrong. “At one show, one of the girls accidentally left a bunch of flowers on stage, on the upper level, and the next thing that happened was the play began to fall to bits – and the whole place went nuts!” recalls Matthew.

“It wasn’t funny, it was terrifying, but somehow, we got back on track. After the show, I saw a friend, and when I told them it had all gone wrong, they said they’d never noticed! But when things go wrong, they’re only funny to the people who are there watching the show.”

Mind you, actors can play jokes on each other too, like when Matthew was performing Arnold Ridley’s The Ghost Train with Julie Walters and Bill Nighy in Aberystwyth. “When we’re locked in the waiting room, everyone changes place in the dark. Each show we’d have scuffles, where everyone would try to shove each other off stage!” he reveals.

“One Wednesday matinee, when the lights came back on, there was only me on stage, and the rest of the cast were sitting in the front row, arms folded, all looking at me.”

Don’t take it too seriously, Matthew advises himself and those around him in the acting world. “Honestly, no-one cares! We’re only playing in the dressing -up box,” he says.

“It’s a love letter to theatre that really lifts the spirit,” says Matthew Kelly of Michael Frayn’s frenetic farce Noise Off, on tour at York Theatre Royal from tonight

That said, he would love to play King Lear, the third age role that veteran Yorkshire Shakespearean actor Barrie Rutter has said “you should do twice: once when you can do it, and once when you have to do it”.

Kelly’s Lear will surely happen one day. In the meantime, next up, once the Noises Off tour ends in January, will be the world premiere of Jim Cartwright’s The Gap, a two-hander with Denise Welch, running at Hope Mil Theatre, Manchester, from February 9 to March 9.

“It’s about two teenagers running away to London in the Sixties and reuniting much later,” says Matthew. “I first did it as a one-act play about seven years ago, then made a film of it with Sue Johnston during the pandemic, and now Jim has expanded it into a full play.”

The Gap follows the audacious adventures of Walter and Corral. “He’s back up north, she’s still down south,” the theatre website says. “They haven’t seen each other for 50 years, not since their Soho days, back in the swinging ’60s.  A chance phone call reunites them for one magical night and in next-to-no time, they’re back to their old tricks.”

What is “the gap”, Matthew? “Cultural? Geographical? I tell you what it is,” he says. “It is the gap of flesh between stocking top and knicker ridge that drives men wild!”

Noises Off, York Theatre Royal, tonight (31/10/2023) until Saturday, 7.30pm nightly plus 2pm Thursday and 2.30pm Saturday matinees. Box office: 01904 623568 or

Did you know?

MATTHEW Kelly appeared previously at York Theatre Royal in two Alan Bennett plays: Kafka’s Dick, with his son Matthew Rixon, in 2001 and The Habit Of Art, a fictional meeting between York-born poet W H Auden and composer Benjamin Britten, exploring friendship, rivalry, heartache and the joy, pain and emotional cost of creativity, in 2018.

Remember Alan Bennett’s The Habit Of Art at York Theatre Royal? Now it’s online

Matthew Kelly as York-born poet W H Auden when Alan Bennett’s The Habit Of Art was rehearsed and staged at York Theatre Royal in August and September 2018. Picture: James Findlay

YORK Theatre Royal’s 2018 co-production of Alan Bennett’s The Habit Of Art has been made available to stream by OriginalTheatre Online.

Directed by Philip Franks, a second British tour was due to start this month with Matthew Kelly and David Yelland reprising their roles of poet W H Auden and composer Benjamin Britten.

However, both the tour and a trip to New York for the Brits Off Broadway have been scrapped after the Coronavirus pandemic lockdown.

In turn, this has prompted The Original Theatre Company, the Theatre Royal’s co-producers, to release the production online.

Matthew Kelly as W H Auden and David Yelland as Benjamin Britten in The Habit Of Art, now available to stream through Original Theatre Online

Leeds playwright Bennett’s The Habit Of Art imagines a 1972 meeting between friends and collaborators Auden and Britten – their first in 30 years – where they mull over life, art, sexuality and death.

What drew Matthew Kelly to playing York-born Auden? “He has a razor-sharp wit and we have a very similar outlook about work which is the habit of art. I am the same,” he says.

“I have to keep working – I’m nearly 70 [his birthday falls on May 9] – not  because I need the money, but because the theory comes into play that the longer you hang on, the longer you will hang on. Otherwise you fall off the perch.”

The Habit Of Art requires Kelly to play an actor playing an actor playing a real-life person. If this sounds confusing, “No, it actually clarifies things,” says Kelly, clarifying things.

Philip Franks, director of The Habit Of Art, who also directed Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre in The Tempest in York last summer

“It’s a very clever device because it means you can be funny about what you do, you can comment on it and you can explain stuff. You can come out of the play Caliban’s Day, which the actors are rehearsing, and then it’s a play about the fictional meeting of Auden and Britten. 

“What’s wonderful about Bennett’s play is, not only have you got the finest composer of our time and the finest poet of our time, but you also, in my opinion, have the greatest playwright of our time.” 

Kelly continues: “So, you’ve got all those words being sewn together by our greatest playwright, who’s kind, accessible, very erudite and talks about sex in a very earthy way.

“He also gives a voice to the unregarded, who don’t usually have a voice. Generally, the great people, the stars of our time, get the final word and the people who look after them, what are commonly called ‘the little people’, really don’t get any say at all. They are the forgotten heroes who nurtured these stars.”

“He’s terribly kind and encouraging, which I love,” says Matthew Kelly of The Habit Of Art playwright Alan Bennett

Former Stars In Their Eyes presenter Kelly completed a hattrick of Bennett roles with The Habit Of Art, having appeared as unconventional teacher Hector in The History Boys in 2013 and Czech author Franz Kafka in Kafka’s Dick, opposite his son Matthew Rixon, as a younger Kafka, at York Theatre Royal in March 2001.

“We were hoping Alan Bennett would come to York because he lives in Leeds and it’s only a hop and a skip away, but he didn’t come,” recalls Kelly.

“A couple of years later, I met him at Heathrow and he came up to me and apologised for not coming to the York production. He was terribly kind about it. “Years later, I did The History Boys in Sheffield, then Kafka’s Dick again in Bath. On both those shows he sent champagne and a Good Luck postcard.

“He always knows what’s going on and he’s terribly kind and encouraging, which I love. The great thing about Alan is he’s very supportive of all productions, although he doesn’t go and see them.”

Original Theatre Online is streaming a second touring production too: Ali Milles’s The Croft, starring Gwen Taylor and again directed by Franks. Both that show and The Habit Of Art can be streamed any time until June.

“We are thrilled to be able to share these brilliant shows digitally: our own theatre without walls,” says The Original Theatre Company director Alastair Whatley.

Alastair Whatley, artistic director of The Original Theatre Company, says: “We know how disappointing it has been to our audiences, cast, creatives and Original Theatre to have to close our shows. We are thrilled to be able to share these brilliant shows digitally: our own theatre without walls. 

“However, the Original Theatre Company operates with no Arts Council support and relies almost solely on the box-office takings. With our two productions of The Habit Of Art and The Croft both out on national tours, the immediate cancellations are financially devastating for us.

“But we are determined, wherever possible, to meet our financial commitments made to our actors, stage managers and suppliers, who are all dependent on us to survive the coming months.  

“Every penny we make through this online release will go to the people who helped make this show, who now find themselves in a hugely precarious financial position.”

Both plays are free to watch although The Original Theatre suggests a minimum donation of £2.50. 

For full streaming details, visit

Alan Bennett’s The Habit Of Art heads from York to New York for Brits Off Broadway

Matthew Kelly, left, and David Yelland in The Habit Of Art. Picture: Helen Maybanks

YORK Theatre Royal’s co-production of Alan Bennett’s comedy The Habit Of Art with the Original Theatre Company is heading to New York as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival.

Premiered in York in September 2018, Philip Franks’s show starring Matthew Kelly will be  one of eight productions featured in 59E59 Theaters’ annual celebration of theatre from the UK.

Franks’s production begins its second British tour in March ahead of the American dates from May 29 to June 28 in one of 59E59 Theaters’ three off-Broadway spaces, having first toured Britain in Autumn 2018.

The Habit Of Art director Philip Franks

Leeds playwright Bennett’s 2009 play imagines a meeting between friends and collaborators W.H. Auden, the York-born poet, and composer Benjamin Britten. Most of the original cast are in the latest production, including Kelly, David Yelland and Yorkshire actor Benjamin Chandler, who made his York Theatre Royal debut in the 2018 company.

Kelly says: “I’ve done Brits on Broadway before in [Hull playwright] Richard Bean’s play Toast, which is very different to The Habit Of Art. But Americans are going to love Alan Bennett because they think they’re going to see something very British.”

John Wark, left, and Ben Chandler in The Habit Of Art. Picture: Helen Maybanks

Director Franks adds: “New York is the most wonderful city but there’s a huge challenge because it’s such an English play. I hope very much audiences will respond.”

The 2020 production of The Habit Of Art is produced by the Original Theatre Company and Anthology with Peter Stickney and York Theatre Royal.

Franks last directed in York in Summer 2019 when his Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre production of The Tempest ran at the Elizabethan pop-up theatre on the Castle car park.