Noises Off is one of the greatest farces ever written – a play that leaves the audience wet, gasping, ecstatic. This crowd-pleaser about a production of a play gone wrong seen first from the front then from the back, then from the front again, makes any audience surrender judgement as it laps up the celestial liquor of idle pleasure. But it needs to be done rapidly, credibly, with maximum elan, or the effect will be deadly.
Even knowing this, it’s hard to believe just how weak Sam Strong’s co-production for Queensland Theatre and Melbourne Theatre Company actually is. There are some fine actors forced to participate in this apology for a farce: Simon Burke, say, who can do anything (superb in the TV mini-series Devil’s Playground, a man who can carry any musical to where it needs to go) but who doesn’t do enough with the role of the director. Ray Chong Nee and Nicki Wendt, who have rather tremendous fortitude under the circumstances, do all they can and more to salvage this babushka of a spectacle wherein we witness an awful production of a play that is about an awful production of a play.
The program note by the author Michael Frayn, who wrote this masterpiece of idiot frivolity, reminds us that it has its origins in a late ’70s one-acter that included Dinsdale Landen, Patricia Routledge and Edward Fox in the cast. And when in 1982 it hit London in its fuller form it was directed by the great Michael Blakemore, the Australian who not only directed Olivier and Constance Cummings in Long Day’s Journey into Night but had actually captured the glint of recognition, at the sight of a comrade in arms when it came to comedy, in the eyes of Maggie Smith.
Noises Off went on to Broadway, it ran and ran everywhere, and was ultimately filmed by Peter Bogdanovich.
This Noises Off lacks the elementary credibility, together with the lightning timing that should make it a thing of magic.
Well, those whom the gods wish to destroy direct like Sam Strong on a bad day. He has some wonderful days – The Sublime, the Brendan Cowell play about a sports rape, was magnificently done, and Jasper Jones seemed to show how he could demonstrate a Moss Hart-like mastery of the biggest showmanship on earth – but then he did an Endgame so bad it had people doubting the play, a Crucible that went off the boil, and a Double Indemnity that proved nothing but the folly of messing with Billy Wilder.
The difficulty with Noises Off – a show that radiates ease and joy – is that if you do not skip through its farrago of stage mishaps, if you limp for even a minute, you will turn it into the ridiculous thing that is being presented cartoon-wise as a joy forever.
And, needless to say, as with all cartoonery, you need an impeccable shorthand naturalism that slides through surface stereotypes with maximum skill. You can’t have actor’s trousers falling down or actresses losing their contacts so that they bump into the scenery in the underwear that has become their defining emblem unless you believe in them as people in the first place. If the Bergson line that we laugh when a human being is suddenly transformed into a thing is to have any truth then the noble art of resolutely realistic acting – at least in expertly stylised shorthand – has to be there with bells on.
This Noises Off lacks this sort of elementary credibility, together with the lightning timing that should make it a thing of magic.
Much of the time it also lacks the sheer attractiveness the actors must project if this play is to be the magnetic thing it is when it works, as it usually does. A 30-year-old memory yields nothing but the expert presence of Jacki Weaver and a dreamlike pleasure that ravished the mind like opium.
In fact, Strong’s cast, at least as often as not, staggers through the play. Hugh Parker is excessively idiotic as the tax-evading rich guy in a role where idiocy would seem to have no limits, and Steven Tandy is histrionically dimwitted in the role of the old burglar who’s past it. Louise Siversen as the Cockney housekeeper goes through the motions like untransfigured clichés, but dreams of Patricia Routledge or one of the world’s upper-level comedians are not dispelled.
Simon Burke has a particular kind of presence as the director who sleeps with both younger women and is preoccupied with his Richard III in Wales, who has a back problem, but the potential expertness of the performance never connects humanly with anyone else in the cast.
Emily Goddard has her moments as the assistant stage manager girl who is at one point reduced to her cottontails, but they tend to be snatches of poignancy rather than hearty ho-ho’s.
Which leaves Ray Chong Nee and Nicki Wendt trying to salvage the wreck of a wreck. Chong Nee has a rather silly “street” voice that contrasts with his toff’s stage voice but he does bring to his role plenty of attack and concerted panache. And Wendt does have sparkling moments of wide-eyed wonder – a sort of quasi-Buddhist ho-hum that surveys the desolation of all human hopes with a philosophical detachment that hits the note and actually touches the essential geniality and warm-heartedness of Frayn’s vision.
It’s so weird, though, to sit through the first act of this grovelling delight of a play and for it to move with the pace of a lumbering production of Eugene O’Neill. Any seasoned first-nighter could tell that the audience members were only laughing the way they do – ever positively predatory for entertainment – through King Lear or Strindberg.
It’s true that in Act II things do pick up with the backstage shenanigans, though it would have been handy if more of the play-within-the-play’s dialogue had been audible. And there is a general susurration of hysterical antics that had a fair fraction of the audience shrieking with pleasure and did at least engender a degree of warmer bemusement among the cold-hearted who kept their heads and remembered what a real Noises Off looked and felt like.
But this is not that. The third act recaptures much of the longueurs of the first and you feel for a mad bewildered moment as if Frayn was a laborious and wordy writer.
He isn’t; he writes like champagne. He plays like champagne.
Near the finish of Strong’s production of Noises Off the stage turns round again – ah, that revolve, boys, it will get you out of any fix – to reveal in beglamoured and smoky light the intestines of theatricality and a fugitive Richard III, clad in Olivier black. It’s a grand little vista, blatantly expensive and serving no purpose.
It’s a mystery why the state theatre companies should invest in such an underpowered and charmless production of a sure-fire hit like this. Who cares if some fraction of the audience is pleasantly beguiled and others intuit the enchantment that might have been from the ruins of what is. The only explanation is the mystery of how uneven Strong is. Great at an Irish shaggy ghost story such as The Weir, not bad at Private Lives, but woeful at Miller, woeful at Beckett. Yes, okay, but woeful at Michael Frayn? Noises Off refuses to accept the very idea of theatrical woefulness as anything other than an occasion for the laughter of the gods in which we all partake. How could things go so wrong?
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 21, 2017 as "All the wrong noises". Subscribe here.