“That’s farce, that’s the theatre, that’s life” – a distinction spoken perhaps a bit too soon in such a play as Noises Off.
Michael Frayn’s intricate, monumental piece of farce performs the very ins and outs of putting on a performance, going behind the scenes of an increasingly chaotic dress rehearsal for the somewhat trashy farce, Nothing On, descending into the uproar of its live shows. Revisiting the same action each act, the play gets more and more riotous each time, spiralling out of the control of its irascible director. The line between onstage and off, the split between being “out there” and “up here”, is raucously unravelled before our eyes, muddling audience and cast, real character and performed role, until you don’t quite know where the sardines are really meant to be…
Watching the play in rehearsal added yet another layer to this double-farce, intensifying the already confusing mix of characters, the criss-crossing ‘on-stage’ and ‘off-stage’ romances, but most amusingly having two directors in the room, both interjecting and commenting on the action until you really didn’t know where the play ended and the actual rehearsal began.
However, the director, Helena Jackson, seems fully in control, despite the potential competition. Inspired to put on the show after having seen a production in Cambridge (soon to be outdone) and a desire to take her love of meta-theatre to the absolute extreme, Jackson has put her previous experience as a stage manager to good use, exploring the farcical proportions of seeing a performance from behind, playing upon the self-indulgences of actors, problematic props, and the increasingly tense interactions of production team and cast as the show edges closer to opening.
The comic chemistry of the cast is immediately felt, the show appearing already quite slick and packed full with the energy this farce-within-a-farce demands, which seems pretty incredible in light of the other commitments of many of the cast members to several different shows simultaneously.
This comic ease is arguably due to Jackson’s interesting pre-rehearsal exercise, making the cast do two weeks of improvisation together as if they were putting on the show’s internal play Nothing On and the effects really do show, culminating in a highly tight-knit cast with a confident sense of comic timing from such an ingrained understanding of what they are performing and the very process of performing it.
The show also promises to make good use of the space in the Oxford Playhouse, involving multiple levels as well as a revolving set to emphasise the switching between front and back stage.
Following on from the sell-out production of West Side Story at the Oxford Playhouse is set to be no mean feat, yet if any play looks up to the challenge it’s the Milk and Two Sugars take on Noises Off. This show promises hilarity for anyone who has ever been in a play, been backstage, or even just watched one. Jackson insists it will be “the funniest show you will ever see” – and I just might believe her.
Noises Off is playing at the Oxford Playhouse from 18th-21st February.
IMAGE/ Thomas Barnett