Playing farce is a dangerous business. Not only is the timing and hitting of marks crucial, but physicality is also a key element in the success of a piece. In a way, farce largely depends upon an audience’s knowing of things that the characters do not. “We know the vicar is behind the door, but the ingénue does not. We know why she’s in her underwear and the husband’s trousers have fallen down but his affronted wife does not,” writes Jonathan Biggins in the play’s program. Enter then, Noises Off, Michael Frayn’s seminal farce – nay, play – about a “third-rate production of a creaky bedroom farce” called ‘Nothing On’ as played by a less than fourth-rate troupe of actors. I say play because the plotting and precision of the writing is pure Stoppard, the collision of art-imitating-life is Pirandello’s, the characters’ awareness of a curtain that will never fall is Beckett’s. Yet for all its double entendres and mishaps, there lies at its heart the very real dilemma of not knowing your next line, your next entrance, your next move, and in that way it is very much like life – we never really know what (or, perhaps, who) is coming through the door next.
Staged in three acts, Act One depicts the final rehearsal before opening night (the first time they have ever run the show through head to tail in one go). Act Two is the production seen from backstage, four weeks into a national (regional?) tour (and played mostly in actions, “looks and gestures”), while Act Three is the production on its final night in Stockton-on-Tees, the last leg of the tour, and indeed on its last legs. It’s all a bit Groundhog Day in a way, the way we see the same one-act’s action played over and again, but with increasing variation and divergence from the prompt-book.
Set in an gorgeous old English country house – all wooden beams and plaster walls, far too many doors (and those all set on rakish angles), and with too many plates of sardines going in out off and on to be able to keep track of them – it is an impeccable production, its smoothness and polished delivery only serving to highlight just how fiendishly difficult farce is to play ‘straight’ as it were, without indulging in or playing for laughs. A play – a production – like this is like a giant clockwork mechanism, in which every move, entrance, exit, and beat is choreographed within an inch of its life, yet that’s even before you start to make it look like a rehearsal or seen from backstage, or on its last legs. Farce, for all its enjoyment and entendres, really is more akin to a scientific procedure than ‘just’ comedy. In many ways, the set (designed by Mark Thompson) is a character in itself – its doors and wings disguising its complexity and nature – and when seen from ‘backstage’ in Act Two, only then do we begin to realise how extraordinary a feat of stagecraft it actually is. Likewise with Julie Lynch’s costumes and the exquisite hairpieces the various cast members wear; the attention to detail and flair for character and expression of character – both the actor’s character, and the character they are playing in Nothing On – is so utterly delightful and spot-on that all you can do is sit agog at Marcus Graham’s entrance as Nothing On’s director, and the way in which everything sits so perfectly within the whole.
Another ensemble show, it is foolish to single any one actor out, but mention must be made of Marcus Graham’s flared purple trousers and mane of hair; Josh McConville’s impeccable timing and extraordinary physicality; Ash Ricardo who spends ninety-fiver percent of the play in her underwear; Lindsay Farris as the exhausted and beleagured Stage Manager, Danielle King as the long suffering ASM caught in one of the play’s two love triangles; Alan Dukes who spends most of the first act with his trousers around his ankles; Genevieve Lemon whose Dotty Otley switches accents at the drop of a hat, and who thribbles around her business, making lines up as she goes along, with all the ease and grace of a seasoned performer; Ron Haddrick as the company’s largely-deaf elder statesman, more often than not lost somewhere in the theatre; Tracey Mann’s Belinda who tries her best to keep the warring factions of Nothing On’s cast away from each other’s throats… And to Jonathan Biggins, this productions’s director who, with all his experience and brilliance with the annual Wharf Revues, makes the perfect director for such a play, and joins the ranks of directors like Richard Cottrell and their exquisite staged farces Ying Tong: A Walk with The Goons, Travesties, and Loot (all for STC).
Recalling the gloriously entendre-filled Carry On films, and elements of Louis Nowra’s immortal Cosí, Noises Off never stands still and refuses to let anything get in the way of the show. As the old adage goes, ‘the show must go on,’ and indeed it does, with infinite variation and increasing mirth, until the point at the end when you wonder if anything else could go wrong. As the world ends, perhaps all you can do is watch someone else slip on a banana skin and be thankful that it isn’t you.
Theatre playlist: 10. Spanish Flea, Herb Alpert & The