Brisbane Arts Theatre
July 4 – August 15
Michael Frayn’s 1982 comedy “Noises Off” is an ambitious choice for any company. The work, which has been quite aptly described as ‘the funniest play ever written’, requires an intricate revolving set which, until recently, proved a deterrent to a Brisbane Arts Theatre production. However, as the venue’s celebratory 1000th production, it proves to be worth the wait.
The story follows the antics of a troupe of third-rate actors mounting a touring production. It is very British sitcom in its feel, with love triangle, double entendres and confused conversations in which answers become rhetorical questions, as testament to the wit of its writing. And with its farcical physical performance of type that sees characters running about with pants around the ankles, at times it is just a ‘Yakety Sax’ track away from being a Benny Hill sketch of boxes and bags and doors and sardines and actors and words and a sometimes wobbly set.
The plot is fiendishly clever with the story taking place over three distinct but alike acts in which a performance of Act One of a farcical play within a play called “Nothing On” is showcased. Act One is set at the dress rehearsal and sees the hopeless cast being baffled by entrances and exits, and bothersome props, including some plates of sardines. Beyond the veneer of ‘darling’ and ‘my love’ interactions, Director Lloyd (Jon Darbro) is experiencing increasing angst at their forgotten lines, missed cues and last-minute questions. And his placement towards the rear of the stalls amongst the audience is genius as it not only adds to authenticity but places the audience amongst the action from the outset.
Act Two showcases a Wednesday matinée performance a month later, providing a view from backstage that emphasises the deteriorating relationships between cast members. Act Three platforms the same, although now barely recognisable performance, towards the end of its ten-week run. It is an interesting concept that is executed in hilarious fashion thank to impressive choreography and the sustained skill of the ensemble, whose physical comedy never relents in its energy.
Act Two’s manic matinee is a definite highlight. While it begins mildly with preshow rituals and revelations regarding relationships, the group’s passive aggression quickly disintegrates into chaos as all try to stay quiet lest they disrupt the action ‘on-stage’. It is a quick-fire onslaught of hilarity, demanding for actor and audience alike who are spoiled for choice in where to land their eye on stage. After this crescendos of silliness, Act Three limps along comparatively, though is still filled with laugh out loud moments as past-caring cast members leave script specifics long behind them.
The show’s smart script serves the actors well and it’s difficult to single-out cast members from such a talented line-up, for despite the chaotic on-cue demands of slammed doors and impeccably timed entrances and exits, each member of the cast excels in their contribution to the comedy. As the dowdy on-stage character Mrs Clackett, with a laugh like Cybil Fawlty, comparative to ‘someone machine-gunning a seal’, Victoria Costa is a hoot in her shrill conversational tone and obsessive searches for sardine props gone missing, playing her part with absolute panache. Her performance is complemented by Riley McNamara, who brings appeal to his dithering but harmless character, and Hayley Fielding as the witless and sometimes literally lost (without her contact lenses) actress Brooke. However, it is Gabby Carbon as long-suffering Assistant Stage Manager Poppy who lights up the stage upon her every entrance.
The idea of “Noises Off’ reportedly came in 1970 when its author was watching performance of a theatrical farce from the wings, considering how the show was potentially funnier from behind than in front (its title comes from the theatrical stage direction indicating sound coming from offstage). And what a wonderful idea it is, absolutely on point with this conception. “Noises Off” is an incredibility clever and outrageously funny, irreverent show guaranteed to take audiences along on a thoroughly enjoyable but absolutely unpredictable ride. Farce can often be overdone, however, this production, although lively, is right on the mark. Indeed, this is a farcical comedy of the best possible kind. Its character-driven jokes are brilliant, the conflict complex and the performances are stellar, making it one of the best amateur shows I have ever seen.