It might be a real case of “oops, there goes my trousers” during the classic farce Noises Off.
The male cast have to drop their trousers on a regular basis as part of the plot, but they’ve had to get costumes with tighter waists to stop it happening accidentally.
During three months of touring the play, which hurtles along at a breakneck speed, the weight has been dropping off them.
“I can commend the Noises Off diet,” says Neil Pearson, who is bringing the play to Birmingham.
“All the men in the cast are on their second, much smaller costume. We’ve all dropped at least two inches from our waistline thanks to all the running about we do.”
Michael Frayn’s play, now 30 years old, is a farce-within-a-farce. Neil plays Lloyd Dallas, the exasperated director of Nothing On, in which young girls run about in their underwear, men lose their trousers and doors continually bang open and shut.
Act One of Nothing On is played out three times – first in rehearsal, next while viewed from backstage on the first night and then again viewed from the front during its final disastrous performance.
The middle act has been described as “the most difficult single act to perform ever written”.
“It’s certainly the most difficult act to rehearse I’ve ever come across – it’s virtually impossible,” muses Neil, the 54-year-old star of TV dramas like Drop the Dead Donkey, The Booze Cruise and Between the Lines.
“It’s a really tricky 25 minutes. Usually you’d rehearse with others and then go away and work on it on your own, muttering the lines to yourself while walking the dog.
“But you can’t rehearse that act unless you have the entire cast, director and set. Nobody speaks, and you can’t rehearse the tremendously complex moves on your own as you need other people.
“During rehearsals, you usually get a growing sense that it’s beginning to work. But with Noises Off, it just doesn’t work and doesn’t work and doesn’t work, and then, if you’re lucky, it finally sparks into life. Then you have to keep it working.
“I think it’s the funniest play in the English language and that comes with its own pressures. You know that it has worked before, so if you can’t make it work, it’s your fault.
“But now it’s up and running, it’s fabulous. Well, apart from the danger aspect. I’ve worked on plays that scare me but not one that has been so physically dangerous.
“I’ve been OK, fortunately, because I don’t have to fall down two flights of stairs or run up them with my shoelaces tied together. But others in cast have suffered a dislocated shoulder and an injured hand and there have been plenty of visits to chiropractors.
“It works very well as a comedy, but it’s also a magic act. The audience marvels while it’s happening, then afterwards thinks ‘how did they do that?’.”
Neil saw the original West End production starring Patricia Routledge, Paul Eddington and Nicky Henson back in 1982.
“It was only a few performances old but already it was becoming a classic,” he remembers.
“It’s written by a scientist, who also wrote Copenhagen and Democracy. Frayn has an extraordinary breadth of interest and talent. He’s brought his forensic mind to understanding what makes people laugh.
“The star of any farce isn’t the cast, it’s its mechanism and how intricately it is put together. And Noises Off is brilliantly put together.
“Mind you, Frayn changed it a lot in 1982. Originally in the third act he tried to inject an editorial element to darken the mood and align it with the chaos which we were living through.
“But by that point the audience were helpless with laughter and didn’t want to be reminded of reality. In the end, the cast, through Nicky Henson, told him when the show was finished because they refused to take any more rewrites.”
The current production of Noises Off began life at the Old Vic, breaking box office records. The cast includes Maureen Beattie, David Bark-Jones, Chris Larkin and Geoffrey Freshwater and is directed by Lindsay Posner.
“We get on rather better than the cast of Nothing On, because we have to,” says Neil.
“We rely on each other for laughs and also to prevent accidents.”
It is Neil’s first appearance on stage at Birmingham’s New Alexandra Theatre, though he remembers appearing in the studio at Birmingham Rep in the early 1980s, in a production of Trafford Tanzi.
Next for Neil is an appearance at the International Beckett festival in Enniskillen, though he says: “I will be taking most of August off. After Noises Off, I need to lie down in a darkened room for a while.”
* Noises Off plays Birmingham’s New Alexandra Theatre from June 24-29. For tickets ring 0844 871 3011 or go to www.atgtickets.com/birmingham .