We all enjoy a good laugh, and if the object of our mirth is frothy, fun and completely ridiculous, so much the better. Michael Frayn’s Noises Off has arrived at the San Francisco Playhouse, to deliver just that sort of escapist lift – and deliver it certainly does. Having originated at London’s Old Vic in 1982, it’s acknowledged as one of the most popular plays in the world, and it’s perfectly obvious why.
In this good old-fashioned British comedy – nobody seems to do this sort of thing quite as well as the British – Frayn, in his play-within-a-play, strips to the bare bones the backstage antics involved in producing a farce, and ends up making fun of the world of the theatre, and those who move within its rarefied atmosphere, in truly hilarious fashion.
Noises Off recounts the theatrical prowess – or lack thereof – of a troupe of touring actors and actresses whose careers are on a downward slope – and who, together with their (understandably) irascible producer, are trying to make a professional-looking fist of a badly written play called Nothing On. Nothing On is your classic door-slamming, completely-missing-the-obvious, farce complete with the obligatory dropped trousers, scantily clad lady – and a number of sardines flying around.
Frayn got the idea for Noises Off while watching Lynn Redgrave and Richard Briers perform five roles between them during a 1970 production entitled The Two of Us. As the story goes, he became fascinated by their fast-moving entrances and exits, and thought that the play was far funnier seen from behind than from the front. He was right.
Act I of Noises Off shows the final rehearsal before the opening night of Nothing On, which takes place in the Grand Theatre, Weston-super-Mare. They say in theatrical circles that a bad rehearsal means a successful opening, and it’ll be all right on the night etc, but as the rehearsal descends from bad to disastrous, one is left wondering.
The second act shows the same act of the same play – but a month later – and this time in production at the Theatre Royal, Ashton-under-Lyme, but here we go backstage to witness the utter chaos taking place behind the scenes. The mimed arguments going on between the various members of the cast have to be seen to be appreciated. Pure genius. As far as the production of Nothing On is concerned, it seems that not much has improved since opening night.
In the final act, we see the same act of Nothing On but back on stage (are you still with me?) – in a production taking place near the end of its tour, at the Municipal Theatre, Stockton-on-Tees – and it’s perfectly obvious that the hapless cast has most definitely not managed to overcome either their professional ‘inadequacies’ or the problems with their personal feuds, friendships, liaisons and weaknesses.
Director Susi Damilano and the cast of Noises Off deliver an absolutely splendid production, with fabulously funny portrayals of the all-too-predictable members of the touring theatre group, split-second timing and amazing acrobatics – involving tumbling down a staircase, and jumping up same with trousers around ankles. It would be unfair to single out any performance for commendation – and in any event, if I tried to explain who’s playing whom and in which play, I’d throw you into a state of total confusion. Suffice to say that every single member of the cast – Kimberly Richards, Johnny Moreno, Patrick Russell, Monique Hafen, Monica Ho, Nanci Zoppi, Craig Marker, Greg Ayers and Richard Louis James – is hilariously marvelous (or should that be marvelously hilarious?) and they look as though they’re enjoying themselves every bit as much as the audience undoubtedly was.
The sets at the Playhouse are always a revelation, and this one – by George Maxwell – is no exception. In every way, this is a simply superb production.
If you’ve seen Noises Off in a previous production, you’ll almost certainly want to see it again, to relive everything about this play that makes it such an enjoyable experience – and if you’ve never seen it, do yourself (and as many friends as you can muster) a favor, so that you’ll know what everyone’s talking – and laughing – about.
Noises Off runs at the San Francisco Playhouse until May 13. For more information, and tickets, visit the Playhouse website.
All photographs © Jessica Palopoli