Monday, 17 October 2022

REVIEW: Noises Off at the Richmond Theatre

I have strong memories of a brilliantly funny night at the Savoy Theatre in 1982 with Paul Eddington, Michael Aldridge, and Patricia Routledge with Michael Frayn’s cleverly structured fast-paced comedy, Noises Off. The title hints at its theatricality referring to sounds heard off stage while performing and each of the three acts involved the same first act of old-fashioned sex comedy, Nothing On. The first act is the dress rehearsal before the tour in Weston Super-Mare, the second act is the same seen from behind the set on the tour in Ashton under Lyme and the third act is at the end of the tour in Stockton on Tees. In each Act we see mounting chaos as the cast’s offstage relationships fall apart and gradually overtake the on-stage performances. It is a very strong premise and a clever parody of those famous Ben Travers Aldwych Farces of the 1920s and 1930s and Ray Cooney comedies of the 1960s to 1980s.

Forty years on it feels a little different, a sort of cross between Fawlty Towers (which predates it), Acorn Antiques (the TV sitcom of mid-1980s) and The Play That Goes Wrong (from 2012) with characters and business lifted from each (although the latter two may have borrowed from this play) but somehow on this outing not as laugh out loud funny as any of them. Indeed, it is only really Act 2 which really shines with hardly any words from the backstage scenes (while the action on stage is taking place again) but plenty of brilliant physical business with flowers, an axe and a bottle of whisky and an astonishingly well-timed series of entrances and exits which seem to make sense! By the third act, all sense of reality has gone, and it is a bonkers scene of ad-libs, missed entrances and knock-about slapstick comedy.

The appeal of this short tour is the excellent cast led by the lovely Felicity Kendal playing soap opera actress Dotty Odey playing housekeeper Mrs Clackett. As we saw in Anything Goes last year, she is a fine comedy actress, so good it is hard to convince yourself that she would struggle so much with her lines and props. Tracey-Ann Oberman has plenty of stage experience and draws on it as Belinda Blair playing Flavia Brent, coming into her own in Act 3 as she tries to take control of the mounting mayhem. Matthew Kelly who has had plenty of success in serious and comedy-drama is Selsdon Mowbray playing an old-school burglar while desperately seeking alcohol. Joseph Millson is the lothario Garry Lejeune playing Roger, the agent looking for an afternoon of pleasure with Vicki (Sasha Frost playing Brooke) at his client’s house. His client is Philip in the play within the play, a tax exile sneaking home for no obvious reason, played by Jonathan Coy as the actor Frederick. The Nothing on technical team is led by Director Lloyd Dallas (Alexander Hanson) who is having an affair with both Brooke and the ASM Poppy (Pepter Lunkuse) and misusing his Stage Manager Tim (Hubert Burton). Are you still with me? There are funny lines about getting the lines wrong like “some of them have a familiar ring about them” and “the show being beyond the help of the Director” or the “tour being on its last legs” but the show mainly relies on the physical comedy for laughs. 

It must be an exhausting evening for most of the cast, up and down stairs, in and out of doors and on stage most of the show interacting with the other cast members. There was a slight sense on a Monday evening performance mid-tour that some of the cast were wondering why they signed up for such a demanding show but the timing was generally excellent even if some of the acting and delivery seems a little forced and hammy. It is never easy watching good actors pretending to be bad actors and I certainly felt I wanted the first act played more straight and earnestly as if they believed what they were saying was true so that the descent in the second and third acts was more contrasted and revealing.

The set of course is the real star of the show, a two-storey mansion with five ground-floor entrances and a window and four upstairs entrances all of which get used to great effect. It is shame that the transition from act to act was revealed when the front-of-house tabs need to be raised to turn the set between acts presumably because the Richmond stage is not deep enough. We can see just enough through the window to see what is going “on stage” in Act 2 while the silent action plays out backstage.

40 years may have put a gloss on my memories of this clever show and there can be no faulting the efforts expended by the cast on stage on this short tour, but the production fell short of my expectations. It was amusing without being hilarious and despite the frantic pace, there was still time to reflect that the whole set-up was ridiculous and dated. If you have not seen this classic farce before then it is worth the trip and if you have you will still be entertained but it may fall short of your memories of a riotous show.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★

Price of Ticket: Stalls, Row K | Price of Ticket: £34

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