Too often, 5th week can become a graveyard shift for Oxford’s events circuit. The B-T struggles to shift whatever’s on that week, clubs empty out earlier, and those who do venture out at night can have the distinct whiff of people drowning their sorrows rather than the enthusiasm of the 1st week revellers who seem nothing more than a distant memory. 5th-week leaves the Oxonian with two options – hibernate, wait it out, and emerge when the storm has passed, or take arms against a sea of post-library burritos and regrets, and confront 5th week head-on.
Those who chose the latter and battled through driving rain to get to the Oxford Playhouse were richly rewarded for their efforts – Noises Off is the perfect 5th-week panacea. Michael Frayn’s farcical play within a play documents from backstage and front an am-dram company’s performance of a fictional farce, touring all the way through the illustrious auditoriums of Britain from Weston-super-Mare to Stockton-on-Tees. The devilishly complex structure shows us first the final rehearsal, then the first night (seen from backstage), before finally showing us the bedraggled cast stumble over the finish line of the final performance.
The first act was a little slow to get off its feet, even with Frayn’s brilliantly knowing observation of luvvie mannerisms (“She loves technicals! Isn’t she just, I mean, honestly, she loves technicals! Dotty! Where’s Dotty? Oh! Isn’t she just, I mean, she really is, isn’t she”). Gregory Coates was the play’s male lead Gary Lejeune, in his (Gregory’s, that is) Oxford debut, save for cutting his teeth on Cuppers earlier this year. Initially, he seemed like he was falling foul to textbook nervous stage-habits, taking his hands in and out of his pockets, inexplicably walking a few feet across the stage and then back again. The play barreled along cheerfully, though, with Tom Dowling garnering the most laughs as the magnificently cynical director – or initially, in a clever touch, the disembodied voice of the director crying out from the darkness of the stalls.
But the play only really started to gather momentum in the second act, as we watched the ‘opening night’ from the other side of the huge rotated set. Like all the best comedy, this was something incredibly complicated and difficult being made to look hilariously easy. Conducted almost completely wordlessly apart from what could be heard coming from the “front” of the stage, the second act is a long and intricately detailed ballet of utter chaos. Props fly across the stage, cues are missed, lines are forgotten, and personal acts of revenge are dealt in slapstick stage whispers. As the laughs turned from a trickle into an out and out wave, the audience’s enthusiasm rubbed off on the actors. The nerves of the first act dissipated, and Benedict Morrison as the sozzled, grizzled thesp (with a knack for smashing through onstage windows at precisely the wrong moment) led the charge into easier, more strident comedy.
As the lines and sequences are rehearsed again and again, from the one-dimensional characters that the two-dimensional company are playing (that, in turn, the three-dimensional Oxford cast are playing), much of the comedy derives from feeling stuck in a loop of meaninglessness as we get lost in the absurdity of it all. Feels ever so slightly like 5th-week – but this cracking comedy was a welcome relief.
IMAGE/Noises Off publicity