Review: Noises Off, by Michael Frayn, Colchester Mercury, until May 16

Dotty Otley, played by Louise Jameson, in Noises Off, by Michael Frayn, at The Colchester Mercury

Dotty Otley, played by Louise Jameson, in Noises Off, by Michael Frayn, at The Colchester Mercury - Credit: Archant

If comedy is hard, as the old actors adage states, then farce has to be the ultimate challenge. Noises Off has frequently been voted The Funniest Play Ever Written, and therefore presents any new production with a tough act to follow. But, any fear melts away within seconds as director Daniel Buckroyd and the all-star cast unveil a disciplined, wonderfully inventive performance which leaves the audience in hysterics.

Temporary hiatus in rehearsals during Noises Off, by Michael Frayn, at The Colchester Mercury

Temporary hiatus in rehearsals during Noises Off, by Michael Frayn, at The Colchester Mercury - Credit: Archant

Louise Jameson (Dr Who, Tenko, EastEnders, Bergerac), Sara Crowe (Hay Fever, Bedroom Farce, Private Lives, Four Weddings and A Funeral), Peter Ellis (The Bill), Sarah Jayne Dunn and Louis Tamone (both Hollyoaks) work well together to deliver a hilarious, frightening, rabbit-in the-headlights, sense of impending theatrical disaster.

Noises Off tells the story of a company of over-the-hill actors staging a regional tour of the (fictional) farce Nothing On. Company star Dotty Otley (Louise Jameson) is bankrolling the tour as a means to raise funds for her retirement. The play opens with a calamitous combined tech/dress rehearsal which reveals that Dotty and her eccentric colleagues do not yet have the required grasp on the script that they need.

Michael Frayn wrote the play after witnessing something similar backstage at a performance of one of his other plays The Two of Us. The characters and the situations have a ring of truth about them.

We also discover that Dotty is having an affair with leading man Gary Lejeune (Louis Tamone) and the increasingly exasperated director Lloyd Dallas (Hywell Simons) is juggling a relationship with both the young blonde in the cast Brooke Ashton (Sarah Jayne Dunn) and the assistant stage manager Poppy Norton-Taylor (Louise Kempton).

Mayhem backstage in the classic farce Noises Off, by Michael Frayn, at The Colchester Mercury

Mayhem backstage in the classic farce Noises Off, by Michael Frayn, at The Colchester Mercury - Credit: Archant

Act Two opens some weeks later in Ashton-under-Lyne. We see the performance from backstage and it is clear that all the relationships have now broken down. It is breath-taking to witness the cast’s just in time entrances as their recriminations become increasing acrimonious.

By the time we reach Act Three and their last night at Stockton-on-Tees, Dotty and co have lost what-ever tenuous grip they had on the script and wholescale mayhem ensues – with only Belinda Blair (Sara Crowe) desperately trying to keep everything on course while everyone ad-libs around her.

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Farce is deceptively difficult to do as the disasterous staging of the fictional Nothing On proves and Daniel Buckroyd and the cast have worked hard to keep the timing sharp and to provide plenty of imaginative sight gags. But, it is not always easy to maintain the energy and, although I enjoyed this production hugely, I felt that there was a time, towards the end of Act Two, when the mayhem temporarily lost focus. As the backstage antics became more extreme, the gags developed into clowning, rather than witnessing the genuine breakdown of a theatrical show. The business with axe didn’t appear ‘real’ – particularly when compared with what had gone before – and the miming was over exaggerated.

Happily with the opening of Act Three, the focus returned and, even with the mania that accompanies total disaster, the glorious final act once again had that air of horrific believability. I would love to see the show again at the end of the run because I am sure that the performances will have become sharper still.

Noises Off retains its reputation as a classic comedy and the Mercury has a real winner on its hands.

Andrew Clarke

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