Noises Off takes us into the highs and the lows of a touring theatre company, and while it’s certainly a drama, just how close does the story come to the real experience of life on the road? We sat down with Matthew Kelly, who has been a star of stage and screen career for more than 50 years, to find out.
What is it like to take a play like Noises Off on tour?
Touring plays is such a fantastic experience because you become a family. I love a company of actors,” he says. “You become very close to people because, particularly in a play like this one, you have to trust people you don’t know very quickly.
So, for instance, in my part, I come on kind of once every five to ten pages, say something funny and disappear off again. But I have to be on the side of the stage the whole time because unless you’re listening to it, you can’t just bob on, do one line, come off and go back to your dressing room. It’s so tightly choreographed and absolutely drilled into us what we need to do when. Otherwise, you couldn’t do it. If you drop one line or if you forget something, then the whole thing falls apart. It relies on everyone relying on everyone, and that is pretty much what touring a play is like.
Do you think Noises Off is a true representation of touring and what it is like backstage?
I think Noises Off is what we would like to be true of a tour. When you see the backstage stuff, it’s kind of enlarged for comic effect, but that’s how Michael Frayn came to write it in the first place. He had written a one-act play about 42 years ago, and he was backstage watching the actors from the wings, and he thought what was going on backstage was funnier than what was going on in his play.
There’s usually a lot of larking around on tour, although there’s not a lot of hysteria, as actors are generally incredibly supportive and kind. Or maybe I’m just busy having a lovely time, so I don’t notice.
Noises Off last year celebrated its 40th anniversary. Why do you think the play has lasted?
Noises Off is a genius piece of writing, and Michael Frayn, who is now 89, has been with us from the start of this production, and he is very supportive. He understands the chaos, and yet it is clever because it’s so interwoven.
In the first act, they are rehearsing the play and just being actors. In the second act, you see the same thing only from backstage when they are actually on the road. And in the third act, it’s the same play but from the front and on the road when the thing has completely gone to pieces. Audiences witness the progression not only of the disintegration of the play but also of the disintegration of the people and their relationships.
Tell us about the play within a play element of the show?
A play within a play allows you to narrate certain sections which would be dull, you’re allowed to comment on the play itself and each other, and it allows for greater comedy in exploiting the foibles of actors – which is never not funny, people always love to laugh at actors.
What’s so thrilling about good writing in theatre is that the audience feels like they’re part of it, or at least a fly on the wall watching it, and that’s what I love about theatre.
You were considered for a part in the early days of the show
Forty years ago, on the first takeover, I was up for the part of Garry Lejeune, which is the driver of the play. But I couldn’t have done it at the time.
You are playing the part of Selsdon. What is he like?
My character is great. He’s an old drunk, so I’ve based my entire career on the part! I’m digging deep for it, and I’ve done a lot of research! I love the part for lots of reasons. One is that he’s the oldest in the company, and people are quite respectful of the elderly, but also, he’s somebody who is really sweet and really annoying at the same time and has absolutely no idea what’s going on. It’s my kind of part.
But it does have its challenges – running up and down stairs and climbing in and out of windows when I’ve got two new hips, for example. It’s physically quite hard.
Noises Off is at Norwich Theatre Royal between 7 – 11 Nov. For more information or to book, click the link below.