Theatre in Wales

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Twenty- six Years On and Daisy-Fresh

Noises Off

Curtain Call , Morlan Centre Aberystwyth , April-30-08
Noises Off by Curtain Call Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off” matures well. Conceived before Curtain Call’s cast and crew were, it has a single line that might benefit from an updating. In 1982 Gulf Arabs were the standard representatives for wealth on stage. Today it would more likely be a Russian plutocrat. But “Noises Off”, already the most commercially successful comedy of at least the last fifty years, wears very well indeed. When the Frayn centenary comes around it will be intriguing to see whether the poly-gifted playwright, novelist and philosopher will be honoured with revivals of “Copenhagen” or “Democracy” or this farce crafted with genius.

“Noises Off” works because in 1982 it was looking back affectionately at a genre that was effectively closing. Brian, now Lord, Rix had retired two years earlier after a career of thirty-three trouser-dropping years. Frayn’s work is simultaneously homage, parody and replica of the classic British farce.

Its three acts cover a rehearsal of the play “Nothing On”, the play-within-a-play, with breaks, errors and revelations, of character, love affairs, nosebleeds and lost contact lenses. Act two takes place behind the set while “Nothing On” is performed and Frayn constructs his own farce. A coveted bottle of Laphroaig, multiple bunches of flowers, an axe, are traded at bewildering speed.

But “Noises Off” operates at a higher level than, say, a farce like “It Runs in the Family” on two counts. First, the emotions are real; alcoholism may, anachronistically in my view, be treated humorously but the welter of infidelities, rage and loss are real dramatic entities.

Secondly, the play works on and toys with audience expectation. When harassed techie Tim brings on a cactus we know that it just has to make contact with a bottom in order that the all-important trousers can fall; it is then a matter of waiting to see how the author engineers it.

Writing about “Noises Off” turns conventions upside down. To call the
set rickety and threadbare, actor Peter McGrath’s Tim catatonic and Alice Chiplin’s dippy Brooke-Vicky’s acting seriously challenged are all in this context reversed into terms of high commendation. In fact, her dogged adherence to her part in the collapsing last act was one of many comic highlights.

Structurally, the descent to chaos and anarchy is dependent on the clarity of exposition and delineation of character in act one. Curtain Call did it well. They were all there. Amy Quesne as Poppy was the perfect universal stage manager, conscientious, put upon and abused. Sam Richardson as Lloyd, the philandering director- “I am God”- sat in the back row issuing his mix of pleas and commands.

Pete Steele was a fluid Garry whose amiable inarticulacy tips over into violent jealousy. Stephanie Jepson played a wearied, seen-it-all Dotty- Mrs Clackett-Ratchet-Sprocket and Chris O’Donovan as Freddy was that type, not the prerogative of the acting profession, where dolefulness and pedantry mix. I met Katie Waterfield’s Belinda just last week, the unnerving organiser, helper, and gossip. (A footnote for the nerdishly inclined- her double characters’ names, Blair and Brent, have both acquired powerful overtones since the play was written.)

The first production of “Noises Off” went for a neat piece of illusion, a double programme, not only that with the star-heavy first cast, but also for the play-within-a-play, complete with full fictional actor biographies.

To their credit Curtain Call also pitched high for a double illusion and achieved a notable coup de theatre. “Noises Off” requires that the set be twice reversed. In the first interval I happened to shuffle back to my seat early and was sent packing by a crew member. The reason was a good one. Timothy Howe hit on the idea of leaving the set as it was and reversing the audience. Behind the set was a duplicate set of seats, same number, same lay-out. We were guided through the dressing room where the “actors” were preparing. In character Paddy Cooper’s glorious old soak Selsdon Mowbray was droning on about his days with John Gielgud.

If it comes to the crunch I will stand for the writer against directorial obfuscation. The line between directorial flourish and ostentation is a fine one but the best that can be said is that I think Michael Frayn would have been delighted with this piece of imaginative nerve.

There is a tale, maybe myth, in the film business that the most sparkling of comedies emerge from a set where the atmosphere was poisonous. Where everyone reportedly had a ball the results are dire. If that myth be true the zest on show can only mean that Curtain Call must have had some seriously miserable rehearsals.

By chance art critic Tom Lubbock published an article the same day on the return loan to London of Lord Leighton’s “Flaming June.” Leighton’s aesthetic credo, reprinted, was “Art is the utterance of our delight in the phenomena of Life and an endeavour to communicate to others and perpetuate that delight.”

“The communication of delight”; not a bad artistic ambition. The level of applause for Curtain Call was that of an audience four times its actual size.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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