28 June - 7 July 2018, Theatre Hawke's Bay, Hastings. By Jess Soutar Barron
The thing with Noises Off is it’s so ridiculous it takes some critical analysis to get the most out of it. So here goes… It’s a play within a play, in three acts and each act unpacks an element of classic theatre technique. Act I: The Mechanics. Entrances and exits, props, lines. Act II: Physicality. Slapstick, mime, action, innuendo, gesture. Act III: The Hero’s Journey. Motivation, downfall, triumph. The three Acts work together to deconstruct the illusion, reveal what goes on behind the smoke and mirrors, let the audience in on the tricks, trysts and tantrums happening in the wings, and somehow, still, deliver up a rollicking good time.
It’s one of my top five favourite plays EVER…can you tell? (alongside Joyful and Triumphant, Arcadia, The Tempest and No.2).
Theatre HB’s production takes this frazzled and frenetic structure and owns it. The comings and goings of nine players through eight doors, the interchange between the two concurrent personalities each actor must take on, multiple boxes, bags, sheets and Sheiks, all mastered then revealed at pace, flawlessly and under control while giving the illusion of flawed, chaotic mayhem. It’s quite a trick.
The memes of ‘bad’ theatre are well represented: overacting, upstaging, fluffed lines, corpsing. And it’s through these that the piece brings the audience and the performers together as one, united against the potential nightmares of treading the boards. “It can be hell”, we all agree, “but we live for it!”
The show nods to an oeuvre that includes Fawlty Towers and Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. Certainly in the last Act the slapstick, which needs a ramping up of pace to be effective, peaks. Volume and timing does need work in the first Act but this will grow as the season hits its stride.
The cast is known to regulars of Theatre HB and this is fitting. The play relies on audience understanding the mechanisms of theatre and having an existing sympathy with the plight of harried act-tooorrrs (and the stage crew that get them through). Poor Poppy, the awkward, eager, unfortunate stage manager, and her sidekick, long-suffering Tim (who hasn’t slept for 48 hours in the run up to the dress rehearsal) are well played by Kelly Reid and Dan Ball. Both have the hearts of the audience, who empathise with the hard work that goes on behind the scenes.
Deborah Burnside (Belinda) does a terrific job of holding everything together, bringing a control to her delivery of the farce that offsets the mania of the rest of the cast. Even when she runs through a tightly choreographed slapstick set, breaking a sweat in the process, she keeps hold of the thread and leads the rest through the bedlam. Neil McCorkell (Selsdon) plays a great drunk, somehow faultlessly remembering cues and lines even when blotto on Laphroaig. The triple-act with Selsdon, Tim and Lloyd (Glen Pickering) near the end is tremendous, somehow channelling avant-garde theatre and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum in equal measure.
There’s a lot going on in this production, keep your eyes open and roaming, especially in Act II where that unpacking of physical tropes is rich. There’s a moment in the middle somewhere where Lloyd, the ‘Director’ tells his crew “I have come to the theatre to be taken out of myself. And preferably not put back again!” Certainly, Noises Off picks up the audience and rides away with it to a very silly place. But on another level, it takes the whole notion of theatre and shakes it out to show that no matter whether it’s Richard III or a two-bit farce, it’s real people stripping themselves bare for our pleasure.
Dismiss the deep meaning, hang on for the ride, you’ll be as pleasured as I was by this classic farce. Despite my nerdy nature I rocked with giggles, dropped my pen mid-guffaw, and forgot all about structural narrative theory in favour of laughing out loud at darling Dotty (Fiona O’Sullivan) losing the plot over a plate of sardines.