Theatre by the Lake, Keswick
Michael Frayn's most populist comedy, Noises Off, is a farce about a farce—a meta-farce I suppose—and is a return to the "backstage comedy" after last year's triumph with Alan Ayckbourn's A Chorus of Disapproval.
There are three distinct acts to the play, each of which builds into a frenzy of chaos as any good farce should. Act one is onstage in the early hours of the morning during the long-running dress rehearsal for Nothing On, a bedroom farce with lots of doors, men dropping their trousers and young women running around in their underwear. Older actor Dotty Otley as the housekeeper is struggling to remember when to bring on and take off the sardines that are a crucial element to the plot, another older actor Selson Mowbray is selectively deaf and has to be kept away from the bottle and others are having secret affairs, while frustrated director Lloyd Dallas tries to keep it all on track so he can get on with his upcoming production of Richard III.
Act two is a performance of that same play on tour, but the Noises Off audience is seeing the play from backstage at a time when relationships have turned sour and the production itself has deteriorated, and so most of the fights, arguments and frantic activity to keep the performance on track happen in dumb-show while we hear the lines from the play coming from the other side of the set.
The final act is back on the right side of the set but the production and cast morale have deteriorated to such an extent that the play is barely recognisable from the original version, despite Garry Lejeune's frantic attempts to keep the production moving, improvising to try to make sense of it all to the audience.
Watching this production is, frankly, absolutely exhausting as you watch, in horror, the characters careering from one inevitable disaster to another and trying to put a brave public face on it all. There are too many hilariously-awful situations to pick any out, but all are performed at breakneck pace and with misplaced confidence under Stefan Escreet's superbly-detailed and rich comic direction.
Escreet doesn't have a weak link in this large cast, but Ben Ingles as Garry stands out in particular as an incredible physical comedian. Initially coming across as annoying and petty, he is, at the end, the one running about trying to make a story for the audience from the random acts that the production has become, and at one point has a very impressive rolling fall down a full flight of stairs.
But then there are also great performances from Kate Layden as dotty Dotty, Peter Macqueen as the frustratingly-inept old soak Selsdon, Heather Saunders as airhead Brooke Ashton who continues confidently with her scripted lines even when they have nothing to do with what is actually happening, Matthew Vaughan as frustrated director Lloyd Dallas, Jack Power as the lovably-pathetic Frederick Fellowes, Heather Phoenix as peacemaker Belinda, Fiona Drummond as harassed stage manager Poppy and Benjamin Askew as stage crew member Tim who has to fix both scenery and relationships.
Noises Off is technically quite a huge challenge as a play, from the two-level set that has to be turned around twice to the complex stage business necessary to make it work, especially in the almost-wordless second act, but Theatre by the Lake has pulled it off superbly. Yes, it is exhausting to watch, but in an exhilarating and very funny way. Before I left the auditorium I heard someone else in the audience already making plans to see it again; this is a true feelgood show that leaves you wanting more.
In rep until 9 November 2011
Reviewer: David Chadderton