Noises Off

Theatre Royal, Bath

I think it was Chekov who said that if you put a cactus on the stage, someone has to sit on it. If no-one gets prickles up their bottom, the cactus has no business being on the stage in the first place.

Noises Off has been described as a theatrical in-joke -- even as a conjuring-trick. You probably know the premise. Act 1 shows the final, technical rehearsal of "Nothing On", one of those old fashioned farces they don't write any more, in which three couples have simultaneous assignations in a house they all believe to be empty. And then a burglar turns up. And then an oil-sheik arrives and expects to be shown round by the estate agent. (He's the exact double of one of the other characters.) Act 2 takes place back stage, halfway through the run, when the cast are bored and have fallen out with each other. Act 3 puts us back in the audience on the final night, when the cast have largely given up trying and everything which can possibly go wrong does go wrong.

I believe I saw the original London production with Jim Hacker as the long-suffering producer. Since then, The Play That Goes Wrong has become quite the little franchise, so the basic concept of Noises Off seems perhaps less fresh than it did forty years ago. But the show is more than just a clever premise. We're not simply witnessing a disastrous production of a very bad play: we're watching a farce about a farce. And the outer-farce is far more farcical than the inner farce. More trousers fall down, more objects are misplaced, more identities are mistaken and more prats take falls in the sustained back-stage pantomime than the imaginary front of house audience are seeing on stage. In-the-play, Roger goes from being a self-assured ladies man to Basil Fawlty levels of mania as plates of sardines and bathrobes "mysteriously" appear and disappear around him. But backstage, actor Garry who plays Roger (and is actually played by Joseph Millson) goes even more berserk than his character -- jumping up flight of steps with his shoes tied together, delivering his line, and immediately falling down again.

I think I laughed most during the second half of Act 1, where the play-within-a-play is allowed to run without interruption and the farce get broader and broader. The bulk of the second act is mute business as the cast run around backstage, bumping into one another, and miming signals as the performance degenerates into chaos. It's an astonishing piece of theatrical craftsmanship. I can only assume that it must be choreographed step-by-step as a piece of dance. (How hard must it be to stage a play where an actor has to act an actor acting surprise because someone has moved the sardines and being actually surprised because they haven't?) But I must admit that it became sufficiently complicated that I couldn't always keep track of the set-ups and pay-offs: a lot of the joke depends on remembering which cast member is currently annoyed with which other cast member.

Impressively, quite a lot of characterisation -- even pathos -- comes through the madness. Brook (Sahsa Frost) resolutely delivers her lines even when she hasn't been given the right cue and the properties are in the wrong place. Old trooper Belinda (Tracey-Anne Oberman) tries to convince the audience that everything is fine, desperately ad libbing lines when the wrong character comes on or a piece of furniture misfires. Frederick (Jonathan Coy) insists that the producer explain his motivation for even the most convoluted plot devices, and Lloyd (Alexander Hanson) who would rather be doing Richard III, does his best to provide then. ("Until you reflect that there was an earlier draft, now alas, lost to us....")

Moderate comedy legend Matthew Kelly plays Selsdon playing the Burglar. He keeps missing his big entrance because he is drunk and deaf; by the end, three understudies are delivering his lines simultaneously. And the show is of course stolen by complete and utter comedy legend Felicity Kendall, who plays Dotty playing Mrs Clackett the house keeper, soldiering on though neither actor nor character quite grok what is happening. She looks older than she did fifty years ago, and carries off a really convincing happy-sad-funny portrayal of a character who has long ago stopped caring. Someone needs to call up her agent and get her to do Sam Beckett's Happy Days while there is still time.

Lloyd the producer has been carrying on with both actress Brook and stage manager Poppy (Pepter Lunkhuse). He sends stage-hand Tim (Hubert Burton) to buy flowers to patch things up; the flowers miscarry; and Tim has to buy more with his own money; which end up in the wrong place; so back to the flower shop he goes and returns with a cactus in a pot. The inevitable occurs.


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

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1 comment:

David Brown said...

Funnily enough I saw Felicity Kendal in Happy Days, so you clearly have an eye for good casting! Just looked it up and it was in 2003.