Michael Frayn’s Noises Off is one of the great modern farces in the English language, having been enormously successful since its initial seasons in the 1980s. Being set in a larger-than- life theatrical world of make-believe, the medium of farce has both a resonance and a truth. Witty, sharply observed and brilliantly written, this delightful play-within-a-play imagines Nothing On, a truly bad piece of theatre in three stages of its life. Act 1 is the final and disastrous dress rehearsal. Act 2 is the play observed from back stage on tour some 4 weeks later, while Act 3 is near the end of the play’s 10 week run, when relationships between the cast, crew and director have totally disintegrated.
Noises Off is a quintessential British play set in the post-war era where weekly repertory theatre, often using poorly written plays that were superficially rehearsed with second-rate actors, was common-place. Frayn was making clear observations here about the theatre he grew up in, as well as using the medium of farce with its emphasis on confusion (including sexual liaisons, lost trousers, doors sticking, falling down stairs and bumping into furniture) to show how life imitates art and vice-versa.
Hugh Parker, Louise Siversen and Ray Chong Nee in Noises Off
This new production from director, Sam Strong, in a co-production with the Melbourne Theatre Company, was not the side-splitting farce of memory, though it did have its moments and was blessed with a good ensemble cast. But to this observer the essence of what Frayn was writing about seemed to have been missed, with subtleties ignored. The various storylines must be crystal clear to make sense of the relationships, and while the production shows us bad actors delivering bad lines and bizarre business, it must be within a tight comedic structure that is truthful with crisp, flawless timing.
The first act started slowly, setting up the action and the characters, with probably the least humour in the lines. But understanding the relationships between the characters, who is in love with whom and where the puzzle pieces fit, is all-important to the next two acts and the denouement, and that lacked clarity. This act elicited muted laughter from the audience, so the actors had to work very hard.
Libby Munro, Steven Tandy, Hugh Parker, Louise Siversen, Ray Chong Nee and Nicki Wendt
However, the physicality of the piece was there in spades. The second act, with a highly effective dumb show taking place in the wings while actors rushed on and off the Nothing On stage, was amusing if overly chaotic and there was so much business going on that it was hard to know where to look first. The resentments and jealousies between actors was also hard to fathom when this had not been adequately explained. Act 3 was the most successful as the play-within-a-play unravels, relationships deteriorate and the actors scramble desperate just to make it through the performance. With strong references to Fawlty Towers, this produced some marvellous individual moments from all the cast with real laughter from the audience, ending the evening on a high.
The actors’ roles are hugely demanding with the majority playing both actor and then the role of actor often offering a diversity of regional English accents. Ray Choong Nee as the actor Garry Tramplemain managed to be a first-rate inarticulate cockney, while James Saunders’ Liverpudlian Stage Manager, Tim Allgood, was spot on, terrific in his front of curtain scene. A triumph of the evening was Steven Tandy’s timing in the stereotypical role of the elderly, drunk and deaf actor, Selsdon Mowbray, late on cue and never where he should be. Hugh Parker as the witless Freddie Fellowes was splendid, his timing and general attention to detail excellent. His attempts to read the Internal Revenue letter in Act 3 produced the best farcical moments of the night. Nicky Wendt was a solid and sensible Belinda while Louise Siversen as Dotty Otley had some hilarious business as the housekeeper, Mrs Clackett, but had a tendency to overact, particularly in her extended business in Act 3. As the long-suffering university-educated womaniser and director, Lloyd Dallas, Simon Burke’s sonorous delivery by microphone from a darkened auditorium in the first act was splendid but on stage he often threw lines away and lost the sardonic wit required by the text. Emily Goddard made Poppy a believable ingenue while Libby Munro was a suitably tearful ASM, though she was mostly inaudible.
Nicki Wendt, Louise Siversen and Simon Burke
The cast gave it their all but looked exhausted at the end and, alas, this showed during the evening when they worked too hard to get laughs or over-acted, with some sections laboured when they needed a far greater lightness of touch. It ceased to be funny. Farce works best when it appears spontaneous and exceptionally easy to do and this production has not yet found that level.
This was a brave attempt at a marvellously complex and demanding play which may also not have the same punch that it had in 1980s when it both sizzled and sparkled. The production will presumably develop over the coming weeks as the actors settle into their roles, allowing the lines to work for them rather than making them seem like a frenetic uphill battle.
Noises Off is at QPAC until June 25