The Noise

Clare Duffy, Jon Spooner and Chris Thorpe

Unlimited Theatre and Northern Stage with Warwick Arts Centre

Northern Stage

From 04 October 2013 to 12 October 2013

Review by Peter Mortimer

Science and the arts are still too often reluctant brides, so what’s not to admire about the ambitions of the Leeds based Unlimited Theatre?

Their fusion of the science and theatre has brought a shower of awards and their production team even lists two consultant scientists. (It also incongruously also lists the name of their book keeper—Alex Smith if you must know.)

Few theatre companies tackle sc-fi conspiracy theories. They’re almost as rare on stage as westerns. Is it snobbery?

The Noise is also a first in my book for a stage soundtrack that fills every second (well, almost) of the play’s entire 100 minutes (composer David Edwards). And what an irresistible plot! On a remote Antarctic island, an incessant ever-changing noise (source unknown) is the backdrop to and affecting the small population’s lives. Tinnitus sufferers might here give a wry smile.

But what is the noise? Where it is from? Is it related to the massive iceberg out there in the harbour? And why does one character get bumped off when questions start to be asked? 

All good stuff. Except it doesn’t really work. The play is written by the company’s regular team of Clare Duffy, Jon Spooner and Chris Thorpe and there's a cast of five on Rhys Jarman’s open wooden set, whose raked stage also doubles as a computer screen. Jon Spooner directs. A large silver geometric shape represents the iceberg.

It’s a gloomy piece of theatre on many counts. The dimmed lighting meant this poor hack had trouble scribbling in his notebook but also every character seems in a thoroughly bad temper throughout (well, with that noise constantly in the background, wouldn’t you be?). I occasionally yearned for a moment of light relief or dramatic contrast as the cast bellow, swear, thump things (including one another) and stomp around in angst-ridden fury. Some light and dark please.

In addition to which this is a plotline which would fare better as a fable; the conspiracy tag burdens it with a whole number of complications (as against complexities) which make it difficult for the play to breathe.

The remote cold locations, claustrophobia, strange goings-on and furry hats at times put me in mind of John Carpenter’s The Thing and the arresting noise soundtrack—several variations on an electronic wind tunnel—has a hint of early Hawkwind.

Rachel Gay, Scott Turnbull, Laura Kellagher, Jeremy Killick and Viktoria Kay imbue much energy into the parts of the islanders and the sinister visitor who we suspect will eventually reveal all. The style of characters suddenly switching to first person seems arbitrary. In the opening scene the man on the sound desk is intriguingly also a character in the play, a device that later seems forgotten. Not sure from the credits if it's David Edwards, Gareth Fry or Pete Malkin.

The Noise is crammed with all sorts of well-researched  scientific detail, and you can’t knock Unlimited’s past achievements. But if you don’t care that much for the characters, how can a play really work? And here the characters, despite vocal and physical exertions, are never truly alive.

It’s another triple production (a sign of our straitened times). The co-producers  with Unlimited are Northern Stage and Warwick Arts Centre.