Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, January 2005

“That’s what it’s all about. Doors and sardines. Getting on — getting off. Getting the sardines on — getting the sardines off. That’s farce. That’s the theater. That’s life.”

– Michael Frayn, Noises Off

That pretty much sums it up. There is a whole lot more plot than that in Noises Off – buckets of it, in fact – but in the end it all boils down to getting the sardines on and getting the sardines off.

Legendary New York Times theatre critic Clive Barnes christened Noises Off, “the funniest farce ever written” – and he was right. Written in 1982 by the prolific and versatile British author Michael Frayn (born 1933), Noises Off concerns a mediocre British theatre troupe producing a run-of-the-mill sex farce entitled Nothing On. The fun ensues when you see, on three different occasions, how the real back-stage life of the actors impacts the rehearsal and performance of Nothing On from both on and off stage.

Any farce requires top-notch comic acting, impeccable timing, and tremendous physical energy. Noises Off – being two farces in one – requires twice as much. While it is a greatly loved and frequently performed piece, it really is dangerous for amateurs to attempt. Thankfully, the current production at the Ghent Playhouse is in the capable hands of director Kate Gulliver, who has proved her skills at the helm of Ghent’s hilarious recent productions of Neil Simon’s Rumors and Noel Coward’s Private Lives. While her cast is all capable, only about half of them are really top flight comics, but Gulliver has formed them into a team where the stronger members carry the weaker for an over-all experience that snaps, crackles, and pops with laughs and energy.

Unfortunately, there is an 800-pound gorilla in the theatre in the form of Joe Iuviene’s set. Noises Off not only requires much from its cast and director, but it requires technical brilliance as well. The show calls for a two story set with eight working doors and one working window that can be viewed from the front and the rear at different times. The only other production I have seen of this show, also mounted by a community theatre group, was in an enormous house with a revolve that enabled the set to be rotated so that the goings-on on and off stage at Nothing On could be made visible. The tiny Ghent Playhouse doesn’t allow for such a solution. Iuviene has gone with a traditional set that has to be physically dismantled, turned inside-out, so to speak, and then reassembled. There is no curtain at Ghent and so this entire transformation takes place in full view of the audience during the two lengthy intermissions the process requires. I would imagine the show would run 30-40 minutes shorter without the set changes.

So you are in essence seeing a play within a play within a play. You are watching the real life process that the crew of the Ghent Playhouse goes through to stage Noises Off. You are watching the fictional process Michael Frayn’s characters go through to mount Nothing On, and you are watching the performances of Nothing On contained within Noises Off. The additional layer imposed by Iuviene’s set distracts from the brilliance of Frayn’s script and eliminates any sense of continuity from Gulliver’s production.

Here’s who’s great: Mike Sanders as the deaf, elderly, alcoholic, and slightly demented Selsdon Mowbray/the Burglar. I want to go see the second act again just to keep my eye on him and figure out how he keeps getting hold of that bottle of whiskey! And Prudence J. M. Theriault as Belinda Blair/Flavia Brent. Theriault is an accomplished comedienne and is able to keep her cool in the midst of complete and utter chaos – all the while slyly aiding and abetting its continuance!

Young Erik Speilmann is really developing some impressive comedy chops. He is a hoot as the overly eager and generally deplored stage hand Tim Allgood. I hope to see him take more comic chances in the future.

Richard B. Lapo, Jr., (Frederick Fellowes/Philip Brent), Wendy Power Speilmann (Dotty Otley/Mrs. Clackett), and Justin Weaver (Garry Lejeune/Roger Trampelmain) all fluctuate between spot-on brilliance and depressing mediocrity – depressing mostly because you know they have it in them to be so much better.

Young newcomers Johanna Fedorow (Brooke Ashton/Vicki) and Helen Smith (Poppy Norton-Taylor) appear to be exactly that – young and inexperienced – but they both seem to be having fun and they are able to keep up with the pros in terms of timing and cues. Community theatre is the very place for them to gain experience and have a ball working in great shows like this. Fedorow is a good sport about spending most of the evening in satin lingerie, and she looks good doing it. But beware that many characters, male and female, “drop trou” during the course of the mayhem – whether they are centerfold material or not!

As director Lloyd Dallas I am sorry to say that Drew Davidson drags the company down – particularly in Act I when he is more in evidence – with his way-too-laid back style. Farce requires everyone and everything to be larger than life, and it is when they play it too safe that other members of the cast fail. Davidson barely shows mild annoyance as his hopeless cast flounders towards what will obviously be a disastrous opening night.

It is frustrating that it is so much more complex to explain to you what is wonderful about this production than to state what is obviously wrong. I do not have the luxury of being able to go on for pages – which is what it would take to really explain the intricacies of plot and character – but I do want to extol the amazing thing that is Act II. This act takes place backstage, but the only spoken dialogue is what is being said onstage, which is when the actors are offstage. So what you are watching is all silent, physical comedy. Serious injury could occur if even one person missed a cue, stood two millimeters off his or mark, or mislaid a prop (mind the sardines!). This is beyond acting and directing – this is dance and choreography and it is beautifully done. And yet it is really just all about doors and sardines, getting on and getting off, getting the sardines on and getting the sardines off…

“That’s farce. That’s the theater. That’s life.”
– Michael Frayn, Noises Off

Noises Off runs weekends January 28-February 13, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. at the Ghent Playhouse, on Town Hall Road just off Rt. 66 next to the fire station. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission. There is some mild sexual innuendo and various people appear in their underwear but it is all in good fun and only the strictly puritanical will be offended. I would take the whole family. Tickets are $15, $12 for Playhouse members. Call the box office at 518-392-6264 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005

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