Noises Off is the Mount Everest of farce. Numerous critics have called Michael Frayn’s 1982 masterwork the greatest farce ever written, and its second act may well be the most difficult to perform ever devised. Like scaling the world’s tallest peak, performing Noises Off is no longer a unique feat, but it is still an impressive one, and not to be undertaken lightly. It requires expert guidance, supreme endurance, technical expertise, finely honed equipment, and top-notch support. If the entire team is not of the highest standard, it is best not to attempt the climb at all.
Fortunately, The British Players are up to the challenge.
Noises Off is not just a farce in itself, but a parody of a farce. It presents a play-within-a-play, an old-style, door-slamming, pants-dropping comedy called Nothing On. This kind of show, with a long history stretching back through English and French comedies to Commedia dell’Arte, to humorous interludes “stuffed” in between medieval mystery plays (hence the name “farce,” from the French and Latin for “to cram”), and back to Roman classical comedies, depends on absurd situations usually involving tricks and adultery, slamming doors and near misses, people catching others in embarrassing situations, and lots of physical comedy and slapstick.
In its traditional form in the sixties, it also usually involved dim but voluptuous young women running around in lingerie, being chased by men with their trousers around their ankles. Because this on its own is not considered as side-splitting as it once was, Frayn uses it merely as a pretext for a new kind of farce, making fun of a theatrical troupe putting on a really bad play. (This has become a sub-genre unto itself, as in the current smash hit The Play That Goes Wrong.)
Frayn gives us Act 1 of Nothing On at three different points in its ill-fated run. The first–from the audience perspective during the last technical rehearsal before opening–presents the actors, director, and stage managers, laying bare their convoluted relationships, peccadilloes, and quirks, and gives us a vague sense of how the first act of Nothing On is supposed to go.
The second, a month later, presents the actors backstage, attempting to keep the play moving while their jealous relationships deteriorate rapidly into murderous mayhem. It is almost without dialogue, and the mounting chaos juxtaposed with the actors’ attempts to keep quiet is utterly hysterical. It relies on exquisitely timed choreography involving entrances, exits, bottles, bouquets, boxes, bags and a fire axe that is breathtaking in its complexity. The third, again from the front, near the end of the run, shows the toll this chaos has taken on the company.
Like mountain climbing, all this requires tremendous stamina. The set–itself a major character in the show (design and technical direction by Mike Lewis)–is two stories high, and there is a great deal of dashing up and down stairs. Two of the actors have to spend most of the time hopping. There is a great deal of physical comedy and slapstick that looks comically painful, but could actually be dangerous if not carefully done. Any team attempting a perilous ascent requires an expert leader, and director Robert Leembruggen deftly guides his team up the heights, planning every footfall and pratfall in advance.
The actors, although all new to the British Players, are experts. Liz Weber, as Dotty/Mrs. Clackett (a role played by Patti Lupone and Carol Burnett among others) presents a capable Cockney accent and sense of weary exasperation. Roger B. Stone makes a fine Lloyd Dallas, the womanizing director, with his orotund sarcasm in Act 1 morphing into aghast frustration later. Jayde Mora is lovely as Brooke/Vickie, the scantily-clad ingenue, and makes the most of her all-purpose response, “Sorry?” and her ditzy inability to deviate from the script even as the play disintegrates around her. Heather Benjamin brings cheerful determination to the role of Belinda/Flavia, who attempts to hold it all together both on and off stage.
James Hild is amusing as Selsdon/Burglar, whether missing his cues, spouting his lines or chasing a bottle of whiskey around backstage. Brie Paris and Peter Moses are appealing as Poppy and Tim, the ill-fated, put-upon stage managers, repeatedly giving the pre-show announcements in tandem and looking like deer caught in headlights. Eric Jones shines as the charmingly dim Frederick/Philip, making the most of the unenviable job of spending nearly the whole play with his trousers down, passing out at the sight of his own bloody nose. Jones does a lovely job of alternating between a Northern British accent as Philip the actor and a very posh Queen’s English as his character Frederick. The First Among Equals here, though, is Preston Meche II, as Garry/Roger. From a tongue-tied blatherer to a jealous maniac to an actor increasingly desperate to hold it all together, with challenging physical bits including spending most of Act 2 with his shoelaces tied together and falling down a flight of stairs in Act 3, he presents a comic tour de force.
As with any ambitious expedition of this kind, the team would be nothing without its technical support. The unsung sherpas here are the backstage crew. Because the Kensington Town Hall has no curtain, the audience is treated to the fascinating sight of the crew revolving the set between the acts. It is actually quite thrilling to watch them rapidly rolling the towering platforms, clearing the stage lights by mere centimeters. The sound design by Matt Mills suits the purpose, especially in capturing the sound of pre-show announcements echoing in an auditorium, and the sound of onstage voices from backstage. Harlene Leahy’s costumes work well, particularly the required lingerie and ruined trousers. The properties designer has her work cut out for her, with endless plates of sardines, a very stretchy telephone, and multiple boxes, bags, and bouquets, and Cheryl Lytle delivers.
As with the conquest of Everest, the greatest danger often lies in the descent. It is hard to tell whether the problem lies in the script itself, whether the performers playing exhausted actors bring down the energy, or whether the actors are actually exhausted. Whatever the reason, the final disintegration of the play-within-the-play and the required happy ending seem anticlimactic–which makes perfect sense, since after the pinnacle of Act 2, there is nowhere to go but down. This is not a criticism, but an inevitability. After such sublime silliness, we have to get back down to earth somehow.
Of course, we can’t take this metaphor too far. Nobody here risks frostbite or falling down a crevasse–although there are a few alarming pratfalls. Still, watching Noises Off, this peak comedy experience, is nearly as thrilling as watching someone climb a mountain–and a heck of a lot more fun.
Running Time: Approximately 2 1/2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission.
Noises Off, presented by The British Players, runs through March 30, 2019, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, Sunday Matinees at 2 pm, at the Kensington Town Hall, 3710 Mitchell St., Kensington, MD 20895. Purchase tickets at the door, or online.