Michael Frayn’s 1982 comedy about the on and off-stage shenanigans of a rather bodgie touring company staging of an equally bodgie farcical play, is rightly considered one the best examples of the genre. Broken into three acts; the first covering an on-stage dress rehearsal, the second showing the back-stage antics of a mid-season matinee, and the third an on-stage performance near the end of the tour’s run, Noises Off is practically a meta take on farce. As relationships between the actors, their director and stage management team become increasingly strained, due to affairs, alcoholism and generally, unprofessional behaviour, managing the ‘on-stage’ absurdity becomes an aside to keeping control of the same sort of antics ‘off-stage’.
Director Sam Strong and his talented cast have captured most of the hilarity offered by Frayn’s brilliant script, timing their entrances and exits, pratfalls and haymakers perfectly. If you’ve ever seen a ‘side-splitting farce’ you’ll instantly recognise the stylish execution on show here. It’s clear that the cast and director have worked meticulously to get their timing precision perfect and manage the myriad of prop requirements the ridiculous plot within a plot requires. Further, Noises Off requires a significant amount of physical slapstick and it is all effected as hilariously as one could hope.
Louise Siversen is particularly good in the opening scenes as she flip-flops between the wild cockney accent of her ‘on stage’ character, housemaid Mrs Clackett, and her plummy grand dame of the theatre persona, Dotty Otley. Simon Burke as frustrated yet promiscuous director of this play that goes wrong, Lloyd Dallas, is appropriately lofty in the reproach of his cast and feebly aggressive in his attempts to hard-arm them back in line. Nicki Wendt is one of those actors who makes more of every role than what is simply written on the page and her turn as the placating and professional Belinda Blair is no exception.
While Strong seems to have captured the spirit of farce and its conventions, he hasn’t been entirely successful in achieving the most essential element, which is to maintain momentum. In each act, the rhythm falters for long enough that the impetus is lost and has to be won back again. Sometimes it’s that the pacing falls away, at others it’s that the whole scene is so overwrought that core plot elements go missing and motivations seem unclear. If it were ever said that comedy is easier to perform than high drama, then farce is the proof that is wrong.
Nevertheless, it’s clear everyone is working hard to achieve a gold standard. Ray Chong Nee literally throws all of himself into the pratfalling Garry, but sometimes struggles to convince with his characterisations. Libby Munro is suitably sexy as ingénue Brooke and wonderfully funny as she carries off some spectacular slapstick. Emily Goddard and James Saunders as the stage management team of besieged production ‘Nothing On’ provide manic goofiness that contrasts neatly with the ego driven troupe of actors.
Richard Roberts’ set and costume designs capture the original 1980’s setting neatly and reflect the limp production values of the fictional play. Ben Hughes’ lighting design craftily demonstrates the various classic performance, working and ‘off-stage’ lighting states of the stage. Russell Goldsmith’s sound design is too clever for its own good; accurately capturing the quieter ‘on-stage’ sound quality of performers heard from ‘off-stage’ but losing the definition required for the audience to truly understand what’s going on and get every joke on offer.
So while this is far from being a definitive production, because Noises Off is of one of the best theatrical farces ever written, and everyone involved in this production seem to be sincere in their efforts to do it justice, it’s impossible not to enjoy this show. If you don’t laugh out loud at least once, you must have a heart made of solid granite.