Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Review: Noises Off

Michael Frayn's classic English farce is, in my opinion, the funniest play ever written.

The action centres around six overbearing actors who can't get on, their frazzled director, and two overwhelmed stage crew.

The genius is in the way the play repeats itself. You see the first act of their play-within-the-play not once, but three times. This allows a buildup of more hilarious gags than you can poke a stick at, because the audience are familiar enough with the material by the second and third times through that they feel like they're in in on the joke every time an actor messes up their lines or forgets a plate of sardines.

My favourite act is the second, when you watch the whole thing from backstage. The set is literally turned around, and you watch the same act you've just seen from behind, complete with backstage dramas, a cactus and a wayward axe. This requires immense talent (and stamina) from the actors, who must deliver all their lines both 'on' and off stage, most staying in view of the audience for the entire act.

The only actor I was familiar with going in, was Robert Glenister of Hustle and Spooks, who plays the director. His performance was the spitting image of Michael Caine's in the movie, which is certainly not a bad thing!

I soon recognised Celia Imrie from Calendar Girls, among other things. She had large shoes to fill - Carol Burnett's portrayal of Mrs Clackett in the movie is almost unbeatable. In the first act I was disappointed to see her throwing lines away, but she soon displayed her excellent comic timing - at it's best when she appears from her dressing room in dramatic, wounded silence in Act II.

The standout in my opinion was Janie Dee's portrayal of Belinda. She came across as more severe and career driven than I've seen in that character before, elements which added to her character immensely. I was somehow not surprised to discover after the show that she's quite an accomplished actress - in fact, the only actress to win all the major London acting awards in one year besides Judi Dench!

One thing I found odd was the English accents. My previous encounters with this show (about a dozen times on DVD and once performed very poorly by an Auckland regional theatre) have always featured 'American' actors performing a British play. This serves to separate the 'actor' from the role, and adds to gags when accents begin to slip as the show-within-the-show falls apart. The British accents in this version weren't down to an interpretation of the story, as it's originally an English play, but I personally really enjoy watching actors switch from one accent to another on stage, so felt that it missed a dimension. Though it added something wonderful to senile Selsdon's character, who plays the role as though treading the board with the RSC.

Overall, it's a magnificent staging of a wonderful show - one not to be missed!

(and I didn't even see a real performance - it's still in previews!)

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