Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company, Northern Stage and Nuffield
When a director describes a play as ”the greatest farce ever written”, you know you are in for a hugely entertaining evening or a big disappointment. Fortunately Blanche McIntyre’s production of Noises Off lives up to its billing.
It’s six years since I last saw Michael Frayn’s 1982 opus which won both Olivier and Evening Standard awards for best comedy. That was a Birmingham REP success which I described as “absolutely awesome”. Yet McIntyre’s version eclipses that.
Noises Off features a touring theatre company whose members try to hold together a shambolic production of a farce called Nothing On. The initial struggle is trying to put together a reasonable show with little rehearsal time; later the aim is simply to get through a performance as personal relationships deteriorate and mishaps mount up.
McIntyre has done little that can be described as revolutionary with the play. She simply leaves it to the cast to extract the maximum amount of humour from the script and demonstrate what a genius Frayn can be.
Noises Off starts with the company rehearsing Nothing On into the early hours before opening night. It’s a typical British farce which calls for excellent timing: people go in and out of a variety of doors supposedly without meeting others who shouldn’t be in the house. There’s also a scantily clad actress, men with trousers round their ankles and more double entendres than you will hear in a Carry On film.
But the timing is off, actors question the director about trivial matters and props appear in all the wrong places, particularly a plate of sardines which appears to take on a life of its own.
The second act is viewed from backstage during a matinée at a theatre in Ashton-under-Lyne a month later. Here a succession of affairs has upset what little harmony there was in the company and the physical comedy increases to hilarious effect.
The third act features a performance in the final week of the Nothing On tour when relationships have deteriorated to such an extent that the company’s motto ought to be “any show must go on”.
A solid cast of nine give outstanding performances. The pick for me is John Elkington who usually plays the dame in Nottingham Playhouse pantos. Here he takes the role of Frederick Fellowes, owner of the house in which the play is set who returns from tax exile in Spain. He suffers a nose bleed every time he witnesses a threat of violence. Elkington gives a glorious performance; he is able to convey so much with a questioning look.
Patrick Osborne as Garry Lejeune, the estate agent who tries to use the house for his amorous encounters, sparkles in the second act; his antics when his shoe laces have been tied together are particularly memorable.
Carla Mendonca impresses as Dotty Ottley who cleverly changes from middle-aged actress to deliciously over-the-top, common housekeeper Mrs Clackett; Orlando Wells expresses all the frustrations of director Lloyd Dallas who is too involved with some of his cast; Becci Gemell expends plenty of energy as Belinda Blair whose gossip causes more problems than it solves; and Sophia Nomvete has presence as Brooke Ashton who loses her composure as much as her contact lenses.
Robin Bowerman excels as Selsdon Mowbray, the unreliable veteran who defies efforts to hide his whisky; Brian Lonsdale as Tim Allgood earns sympathy for the way people expect too much of him as stage manager; and Ritu Arya sparkles as Poppy Norton-Taylor, the assistant stage manager who holds everything together before her own problems get the better of her.
Blanche McIntyre was named best director at the 2013 TMA UK Theatre Awards for her production of Chekhov’s The Seagull. Noises Off could hardly be different—but this farce is one long laugh and deserves all the accolades it gets.
Reviewer: Steve Orme