Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Noises Off

The Wardens , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , May 8, 2014
Noises Off by The Wardens

In the programme notes for this production of Michael Frayn's "Noises Off", we are told that the Wardens Amateur Dramatic Society was formed in 1944, during World War Two. In the 70 years that have followed, the people of Aberystwyth have been treated to quality production after quality production but I have little doubt that very few of the Wardens' discerning followers will have witnessed anything quite like this before.

"Noises Off is not one play, but two" we are told in the notes and cleverly concealed within the programme is a second programme for the “play within a play”, "Nothing On" by Robin Housemonger. The double programme cannot but pique the audience's interest from the outset and bearing in mind the complex metatheatre that is to follow, it is a welcome little reference guide as the evening unfolds.

Richard Cheshire's adaptation of the play has a lot to live up to bearing in mind the front cover of the programme includes two quotes from national newspapers referring to Noises Off as "Deliriously Funny" and "Foot-stompingly, seal-honkingly hysterical". Indeed, we are told elsewhere that when it was first produced, it ran in the West End for nearly five years and won both the Evening Standard and the Olivier awards for Best Comedy. Talk about (potentially*) setting yourself up for a fall?!

With such glowing words cementing themselves in the audience's ears, the curtain rises and we see Dotty Otley (played effortlessly by the faultless Lynne Baker) running her lines for the opening act of Nothing On, in which she plays Mrs Clackett, an endearing and dry humoured housekeeper for Philip and Flavia Brent (played by rough diamond Jim Vale and consummate professional Julie McNicholls). After a few minutes of Otley's sardine related musings, we hear the boom of her director's voice on his 'microphone of God'. Lloyd Dallas is played by David Blumfield, perhaps best known to local audiences for portraying countless baddies in the Wardens' annual Panto, but who also has a theatrical CV as long as his leather jacket covered arms. Blumfield is cleverly concealed amongst the audience, most of whom swivel their heads in unison towards him as soon as his first words are uttered, having not spotted him whilst taking their seats. Anyone who has ever been involved in professional theatre (or indeed amateur theatre to a professional standard) will instantly empathise with Otley, who bears the brunt of Dallas’ relatively calm but uncompromising words as it dawns on both of them that the first production of the play commences in a matter of hours.

Over the next twenty minutes or so we are introduced gradually to the rest of the small (but perfectly formed) cast and to be perfectly honest at this point I was starting to doubt the wisdom of quoting the play’s past glories in the programme, when the pace of the opening act hardly left you stomping your feet or honking like a seal. However, here I must refer you back to the asterisk after the word "potentially" because anyone who doubts Richard Cheshire's directing skills, even for a nanosecond, does so entirely at their own peril and by the end of the show, you realise that these early gambits are simply the lull before the storm and a very deliberate part of a crescendo of hilarity that builds and grows and multiplies until sides split, jaws ache and tears of laughter run down an auditorium full of thoroughly entertained faces.

If in Act One we are watching a duck glide smoothly over a millpond… Act Two we are watching its legs going ten to the dozen beneath the surface as the audience catch a glimpse of the behind the scenes happenings during the same section of the play that we saw in Act One. This is where the carnage really begins as not only do we see the ubiquitous panic that can be found at the derriere of any theatre production, but we also see the off-stage dynamics between the actors whilst they try (but inevitable fail) to stay professional whilst they are treading the boards.

Gary Lejeune is played by Marcus Dobson who is rapidly becoming one of the most reliable actors on the Aberystwyth ‘circuit’. He has comic timing coursing through his veins and at one point the audience’s laughter (after he vigorously falls down the stairs) is nervous as much as anything else, such is his commitment to the stunt. Fortunately, we soon notice he is still breathing which is a good job as our eyes are soon directed to another nugget of comedy gold as the various characters combine to make the audience’s heads go back and forth to different parts of the stage as if they were watching a 2 hour game of tennis from the half way line.

Natalie Redman plays Brooke Asthon and although her costume doesn’t leave much to the imagination, her performance certainly does and she fits in amongst the Wardens stalwarts as if she had been performing with them for years. Speaking of Wardens’ stalwarts, Theresa Jones is hysterical as Poppy, Lloyd Dallas’ backstage dogsbody (and one of his many love interests) as she represents the less glamorous (but no less important) role of the backstage crew alongside Rob O’Malley, who plays Tim Allgood and his entrance as a substitute for Jim Vale’s character (who is left battered and bruised by a backstage accident) is possibly the funniest moment in the whole play. The final member of the cast is Theatre Y Werin favourite Ioan Guile who plays the constantly inebriated Selsdon Mowbray and although Mowbray may be less than professional on stage, Guile, as usual, is on the money.

Act Three sees the set re-spin 180 degrees and once again we view the action from the perspective of an audience watching Nothing On but this time with full knowledge of the madness taking place behind the scenes. If Act One lays the foundations and Act Two provides the sub-plot, Act Three brings the whole production together until it reaches a fabulously farcical climax. It is organised chaos but organisation (and “organisation” can easily be interchanged with “directing” here) at a level that most people will not comprehend. The speed of the production is relentless, the progression from act to act is seamless and the fact that the cast deliver the show with such aplomb is the cherry on the cake as it is easy to forget that they all effectively have to learn the same scene three times in three completely different ways.

I think it’s safe to say that anyone who has ever been involved in a theatrical production will ‘get’ this play a lot more than those who have only ever enjoyed things from an audience perspective and I’d go as far as to say that those who have previously been part of a Wardens’ production will enjoy it even more, but I would defy even those who have never set foot in a theatre before, not to be amused by this smorgasbord of entertainment and utterly impressed by a directing masterclass from Richard Cheshire.

Reviewed by: Alan Rock

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